They came to honor the past, and wound up finding their future.
Dale Earnhardt Sr., make way for Justin Bieber—at 200 mph. In a chaotic Daytona 500 that featured a record number of leaders, crashes and tears, 20-year-old Trevor Bayne shocked stock car racing by authoring a momentous upset and winning the sport's biggest race on its most storied track.
As he crossed the finish line to the checkered flag last Sunday before 200,000 stunned fans, Bayne became not only Daytona's youngest champion but also its most naive.
"Is this a dream?" he yelled to his team through his radio headset. "I don't even know where to go." Caught up in excitement and confusion, Bayne then proceeded to fly past the victory lane.
Until that point the weekend had belonged to the memory of Earnhardt, the seven-time NASCAR champion who died in a crash on the last lap of the 2001 race. And the promise of his son—Junior—winning his first Daytona on the 10-year anniversary of the tragic moment.
Sitting in a hotel lobby just beyond Turn 3—where Earnhardt crashed—last weekend, Texas Motor Speedway president Eddie Gossage paid his tribute to No. 3 with memories both fresh and stark.
"For a country boy who didn't finish high school, Dale was the best all-around person you'd ever wanna meet," Gossage said. "He had this special social skill of making you feel like you had his undivided attention. Yet all the while he reminded you that he was the alpha male. He'd reach up and pinch your nose, try to crush your hand during a handshake or step on your toe during an interview. Just little reminders to let you know who was in charge of things."
Earnhardt was a rugged intimidator, the Marlboro Man behind the wheel of a 200 mph monster. He drove with a menace and wore a mustache. Some loathed him, yet all respected him.
He was a man's man.
Don't look now, but NASCAR's Super Bowl was just won by the antithesis: A boy who shaves once a week and watches the TV cartoon Rugrats. A freshly minted 20-something who can't yet be hated, because he is wholly unknown.
After the race, Fox TV analyst Darrell Waltrip sheepishly admitted his ignorance to viewers. As he held up a blank sheet of paper, he deadpanned, "Look, this is my bio sheet on Trevor Bayne."
In an instant he became the newest, freshest face in NASCAR, the guy who will ring the New York Stock Exchange bell and make the late-night talk-show circuit in the coming weeks. In the hours after his victory, he gained 10,000 new Twitter followers. One seriously doubts—if he were alive today—ol' Dale would have a Twitter or Facebook or time for anything but eye-to-eye, one-on-one conversation.
Before Sunday, of course, Bayne had started exactly one Sprint Cup race in his life. And that came last April in Fort Worth when he finished a surprising 17th. That led owner Jack Roush to give him a full-time ride on the Nationwide circuit this season before the Wood Brothers topped the offer with a promise of some Sprint Cup starts. And now, after the biggest upset in American auto racing history, by far the youngest champion (Jeff Gordon held the previous record at age 25) has given the sport's oldest team its first Daytona win since 1976.
"Seriously, I don't know what to say right now," Bayne said in his post-race press conference. "I just wanted to finish the race, honestly. To be sitting here as the winner is unbelievable."
Because of a new pavement laid down at Daytona in the wake of last year's disastrous race that was ruined by a pothole on the track, cars went faster this year. And even faster when they went together. This turned the Daytona 500 into a sort of Noah's Ark race, as drivers paired up two-by-two to navigate the 2.5-mile course for 200 laps. It was drafting. It was dancing. It was very dangerous.
The race featured 74 lead changes, 22 different leaders and 16 yellow flags, all Daytona records. Each time a car—or cars—would seemingly create a working lead, a crash behind would slow the pace and re-bunch the cars for yet another restart. Drivers following behind in the two-car configuration couldn't see ahead of them, leading to numerous crashes caused by a lack of chemistry, choreography and clue.
At one point on his radio Earnhardt Jr. lamented, "Seriously, I can't see a fucking thang!"
Somehow, through the angst and attrition and anonymity, Bayne survived. On the second of a pair of two-lap overtimes—caused by late-race wrecks—he got a "push" from veteran Texas driver Terry Labonte and held off previous Daytona champ Carl Edwards to the finish.
"I'm thrilled for this kid," Edwards said. "NASCAR couldn't ask for a better face to represent it going forward."
With his social networking and cartoon watching and youthful enthusiasm, Bayne is exactly what NASCAR needs. In a relevance slump caused by uniformity bordering on vanilla-flavored monotony, Jimmie Johnson's dominance and Junior's absence, TV ratings and attendance have fallen off in the last two years.
Enter a kid who was 10 and racing go-karts when Earnhardt Sr. died, who is a native of good ol' boy Knoxville, Tennessee., who is a devout Christian and who is nicknamed "T-Bayne," a spin-off from the popular, auto-tuning hip-hop star T-Pain.
He's also the kid with the $1.4 million check and the title that many believed the racing gods would bestow on Earnhardt Sr.'s son, Junior. But after starting at the back of the pack due to a crash in practice and rallying to lead nine laps, Dale Jr. was undone by first a flat tire and then a crash in the frustrating final five laps.
"It was a very emotional week, a very draining race," said Junior, touched by a Daytona tribute of silence for his father when the fans and public address announcer went silent and raised three fingers on the race's third lap. "I know I would've liked to have seen it all turn out differently and I think a lot of fans felt the same way, but that's racing. Never know what's going to happen, do you?"
Only thing for sure is that Bayne will no longer be an unknown rookie when NASCAR arrives at Texas Motor Speedway for the April 9 Samsung/Mobil 500. He'll be a Daytona 500 winner with a youthful following in a sport entrenched in tradition. NASCAR may not have its next Earnhardt Sr., but it does have its next big thing.
"I still don't think it's real," said Bayne, who now owns more Daytonas than Tony Stewart, Mark Martin and Kurt Busch combined. "Sorry if I'm bouncing around on questions and answers. Figure I can do whatever I want to, since it's just a dream anyway."
How strange is NASCAR these days without Dale Earnhardt Sr.?
The last six years there have been six different champions. And the latest Daytona 500 champion won a race born out of bootlegging despite not being old enough to buy a beer.