Although some inside the sport of racing knew who he was already, Trevor Bayne exploded onto the motorsports radar of everyone who evenly remotely followed the sport in 2011 when he won the Daytona 500 in only his second NASCAR Cup Series start. It appeared to be a Cinderella story that was too good to be true for the then 20-year-old driver, and in some ways, it proved to be exactly that.
The Knoxville native had, before 2011, spent a little more than a full season driving Toyotas in the NASCAR Xfinity Series for Michael Waltrip Racing. It was following that opportunity when he got his biggest break to date.
After taking what was then a part-time ride in the legendary No. 21 Ford for Wood Brothers Racing to victory lane in NASCAR’s biggest event, it would seem likely that such a young driver who showed seemingly unlimited promise would have been set up to assume a ride with one of racing’s top teams. And while Bayne did ultimately land in a full-time Cup Series seat, it was with an organization whose best days were behind it and the results proved to be somewhat predictable.
Following the 2018 season in which he had been demoted to part-time status by Roush Fenway Racing so that organization could place former champion Matt Kenseth in the seat of its No. 6 Ford for a few races, Bayne eventually found himself without a ride.
Since then, Bayne and his wife Ashton have owned and operated the Mahalo Coffee Roasters business in his hometown in Tennessee. And to satisfy his need to race, there have been a few Dirt Late Model outings along the way.
Now at the age of 32, the once hot young prospect is looking to make a comeback in NASCAR. Bayne has secured a deal that will allow him to run in seven races this year in the No. 18 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing in the Xfinity Series. This Saturday’s ‘Production Alliance Group 300’ at the Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California will be the first of those scheduled events.
“This whole thing feels like a kid again,” Bayne energetically proclaimed during a recent NASCAR Media availability. “I think if I had got this chance in 2019, right after being in a Cup car, it would be kind of like Matt D(DiBenedetto) going back to truck racing, it’s like I’m excited to be here but I’d like to be in a Cup car. For me, this feels like the first shot all over again, I feel like I’m going to Michael Waltrip Racing. I’ve got that same giddiness and a fresh perspective like this is my first shot all over again and it’s really similar. My perspective is like it was when I was 18.”
And like those early days in his racing career, the driver’s emotions are building.
“The nerves are definitely kicking up,” Bayne related. “I think the closer we get to race time, the anxiousness, it’s not that I’m nervous that we won’t be fast, it’s the nervousness of getting back on the race track and what that’s going to be like. There’s nothing like the real thing no matter how much work I do to prepare, I know that Friday night before I get on the track I’m going to be a little restless. I want to go to the track to win and this is an opportunity to do that. Joe Gibbs Racing is, I think you could say, the best team in Xfinity. For me to have an opportunity to drive a car like that, I expect to win.”
Bayne has earned two Xfinity Series wins during his career, both while driving for Roush Fenway Racing. But those victories came in 2011 and 2013. Much has changed in that series since he was last a full-time competitor there.
“It’s not like it was when I had my first opportunity,” he pointed out. “It used to be that you could go and test and practice and do all those things. Fortunately, I have some experience to lean on having been to Auto Club before, it’s been four years since I was there. And the technology has changed a lot since my last time in the NASCAR Xfinity Series. It looks a little bit different this time.”
Preparing for a race has changed a great deal over the past decade. Bayne gave the interview via the internet from inside his home gym where he was preparing his body physically for racing. But in this highly technical era, there is much more to sitting in the driver’s seat than just being physically fit.
“For me, it’s watching a lot of videos, in-car video of Kyle Busch when he ran there,” the driver explained. “It’s looking at a tool called SMT, it’s data, it’s almost like a video game so you can watch all of the throttle and steering traces from every car from the race so there’s a lot of studying that data. There’s some simulator work, at TRD they have a really good simulator system there that’s accessible to their Truck, Xfinity and Cup drivers. It’s not the real thing, I know that, so there’s going to be a bit of just getting used to how fast it is again. The handling will be different. The tools that are available, I’ve been using.”
Make no mistake, Bayne never wanted to be out of racing. While the way things ended with the loss of his ride in the No. 6 car back in 2018 was disappointing, he always held out hope for a return to the sport he has loved since childhood.
“I’ve fought for another opportunity for the last three years,” he commented. “As most of you guys know, I did not want to be done in a race car. I still wanted to drive, I still wanted to be at the track but I just didn’t have the right opportunity. I didn’t have a chance to go drive for another team where I felt like we could win, or really any chance for that matter, so I came back home and started a coffee business and in a way tried to run from racing.”
But those feelings of wanting to race again were kept alive by a brief stint in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series and his dirt racing ventures.
“I felt a little bit burned out in 2018 so I just said we’re going to do something different,” Bayne admitted. “Every time I would turn on a race or something like that, that draw back into racing was so strong. In 2020, I had a chance to drive a truck for Niece Motorsports and that was fine but it didn’t feel like a rebuilding or another shot to get back at it the way that I was before. Last year, I built a Dirt Late Model and ran five or six races.”
The chance to get into a JGR Toyota began when Bayne contacted Steve De Sousa who heads up Xfinity Series development for that organization. Supporting the move is Devotion Nutrition, a small company making a big investment in racing to provide this opportunity.
“I called Steve De Sousa,” he recounted. “I’ve known him for a long time and asked if there was any opportunity at Joe Gibbs Racing because I know you guys have the best Xfinity program and I want to come back to win. I want to come back and make a statement and show what I can do as a driver. If I can’t get it done, I want to know that I was in the best ride possible and it just didn’t work out.”
This determined driver has one goal in mind and that is to make it back to NASCAR’s top level.
“It really feels like one of the best opportunities I’ve ever had outside of getting in that Wood Brothers car at Daytona. To me, this feels like the re-set. I don’t know what comes of this, I don’t know if I end up back in a Cup car full time or in an Xfinity car contending for wins and championships. That’s what I would like to see happen. I feel like in seven races, I need to win three to five races if I’m going to make a comeback, that’s my goal.”
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Richard Allen has been covering NASCAR and other forms of motorsports since 2008.
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