- Associated Press - Monday, February 21, 2011

DAYTONA BEACH, FLA. (AP) - Trevor Bayne celebrated his Daytona 500 victory by playing basketball with friends, then skateboarding on the infield of NASCAR’s most storied race track.

And why not? This is the youngest winner of the Great American Race.

Bayne seemed still in disbelief Monday of his Daytona 500 victory, which came a day after his 20th birthday and in just his second start in NASCAR’s elite Sprint Cup Series.

His beaming parents, who watched the race in the grandstand and fought the crowd to reach Victory Lane, didn’t even mind staying up half the night to wash his laundry so there would be clean clothes for the upcoming whirlwind media tour.

Wide-eyed and laughing at the absurdity of his life-changing victory, Bayne was just going with the flow.

“It’s insane because we were kidding around, ‘Did you bring enough clothes to go if you win the race?’” Bayne said. “I was like, ‘Oh, yeah, I’ve got this. I’ve got two T-shirts.’ I thought it was a big joke, but here we are. This is so crazy.”

That’s how it seems to go in NASCAR’s biggest race of the season, which has a history of wild finishes and surprising winners. Sunday was no different, with a record 74 lead changes among 22 drivers, and a record 16 cautions that took many of the heavyweights out of contention.

It left a handful of unprovens at the front of the field in the closing laps, with some of the biggest stars in the sport bearing down on their bumpers. Among them was two-time champion Tony Stewart, who even Bayne assumed would pass him during the final two-lap sprint to the finish.

Nobody in those closing laps expected Bayne, driving the famed No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford _ which, by the way, hadn’t won a race in 10 years _ to make it to Victory Lane in one of the most difficult Daytona 500s in memory. New pavement made for a fast track that produced speeds over 200 mph throughout Speedweeks, and a new style of two-car tandem racing that required intense mental focus and the trust of other drivers.

Bayne proved he was up for the challenge in a qualifying race four days before the 500 when he pushed four-time champion Jeff Gordon around the track for most of the 150-mile event. Consider that his parents still have a Gordon poster hanging in Bayne’s childhood bedroom in Knoxville, Tenn.

“I’m watching thinking I can’t believe he’s drafting with Jeff Gordon, at 200 mph, down the backstretch,” his mother, Stephanie, said Monday.

But the Baynes learned long ago not to underestimate the oldest of their three children. He’d been racing since he was 5 with the backing of his father, Rocky, and knew by 12 he needed to move to North Carolina and hook on with a NASCAR team.

His break came with Dale Earnhardt Inc. when he was 15, and Bayne made the move _ alone _ to a condominium outside of Charlotte, N.C. Although Rocky spent several days a week with his son, Bayne was essentially navigating through life on his own, relying on team employees to give him rides to and from work because he was too young for a legal driver’s license.

His parents never questioned his decision.

“He’s always been a mature kid, he’s an incredible boy,” his mother said. “He makes really smart choices, and I’ve never worried about him. He’s a real likable boy.”

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