DAYTONA BEACH, FLA. — Let's be honest here: short of Dale Earnhardt his own self coming down from the heavens, angel wings and all, to bless his son in victory lane, no one race could possibly "save" NASCAR. The sport's problems run wide and deep, and a single race couldn't hope to solve them all.
But when you're in a pothole, to coin a phrase, the best thing to do is stop digging. Or repave, whichever.
After two straight years in which its signature event turned into a television nightmare, in 2009 because of rain and in 2010 because of that dreaded pothole, NASCAR was facing a must-win situation. And, thankfully, the racing gods delivered a Daytona 500 of historic proportions.
Start, one last time, with the Earnhardt factor. This race marked the 10-year anniversary of Earnhardt's passing. And while Earnhardt casts a long shadow — one that, at times, has seemed to stunt the entire sport's growth — his continuing influence on the sport is undeniable and well worth honoring. The silent third lap, where the only sound was the noise of the engines, and every fan in the stands stood and held up three fingers, was a fitting tribute, and an appropriate coda to the man's life.
Go from there to the winner, a kid who was just nine years old at the time of Earnhardt's death. With deep ties to one of NASCAR's most revered organizations but a mindset and approach that's decidedly 21st century, Trevor Bayne simply couldn't be a better story for NASCAR right now.
Bayne, who celebrated his 20th birthday on Saturday, outdueled Carl Edwards, Bobby Labonte, Tony Stewart, Kurt Busch and half a dozen other NASCAR legends to take the checkered flag for Wood Brothers. He's the organization's first Daytona winner since David Pearson in 1976, and he joins a list that includes Tiny Lund, A.J. Foyt and Cale Yarborough. Pretty heady company there. And during his press conference, he was joking, at ease in the spotlight, modest yet confident ... exactly the kind of driver that NASCAR can hold up as an example of what's good in the sport. (And that likely means he's not long for Wood Brothers, but that's another story for another day.)
Now, honesty time. This race was by no means flawless from a technical perspective. The two-by-two packs, so derided all week long, ended up causing a monster wreck that took out a third of the field barely 50 miles into the race. Two of last year's Big Three were total nonfactors — Jimmie Johnson was caught up in the Big One, and Kevin Harvick's blown engine had him home before the race was over — and the third, Denny Hamlin, didn't figure in the finish.
Still, from a storyline perspective, this race was exactly what NASCAR needed. A new face in victory lane, new enthusiasm in the nearly-filled stands, new hope that maybe we've seen the bottom and are on the upswing once again. For one perfect Daytona afternoon, Trevor Bayne gave NASCAR what it desperately needed: hope that tomorrow will be better than today.
- Dale Earnhardt