Rest and relaxation were two words absent from Trevor Bayne's vocabulary this past offseason.
The severely jet-lagged NASCAR driver had just returned from doing Christian outreach mission work in Kenya when he called from his Knoxville, Tenn., home to do this interview with Zap2it. In two days, he would head off to Miami to catch a cruise on which he's the guest speaker on behalf of his ministry.
And after that, it's off to Florida to test and train for the traditional opening of the stock-car racing season, the Daytona 500, which airs Sunday, Feb. 26, on Fox from Daytona International Speedway.
Last year, the 21-year-old went from virtual obscurity to overnight fame by winning the 53rd annual "Great American Race," in the process becoming the youngest driver, at 20 years and one day, to win the Sprint Cup opener and only the second (with Lee Petty at the inaugural race in 1959) to win it in his first start there.
"I don't know that it's sunk in all the way even still," Bayne says of his career- and life-changing victory. "But I think for me, it was kind of when I was on the plane the next day. ... It was the first time I was really alone, and I was sitting there in this plane taking off, and I look down and I see that ring on my finger, and I just started tearing up a little bit. I was like, 'Man, we really did this.' And I realized that that's the same ring that Dale Earnhardt tried 19 times for and a lot of people tried their whole lives for and never had one. So that's when it kind of sunk in.
"It sunk in even more," he continues, "when I was at the Hall of Fame dinner (in January), and they're showing highlights of people's careers, just showing different things -- you know, all the wins of Richard Petty and just things like that, and then Dale Earnhardt's 500 win. Then all of a sudden, we're up there on the screen, our team in Victory Lane, and I was like, 'Wow, this is crazy to be on the same stage being recognized the same as these guys and their accomplishments.' It's pretty wild to think about it that way."
Indeed, there are many who have gone their whole careers without ever winning NASCAR's biggest race, among them such respected drivers as Mark Martin, Rusty Wallace, Ned Jarrett, Jeff Burton and the Labonte brothers. And then, of course, there's Earnhardt, the seven-time Cup champ who won in 1998 in his 20th attempt.
Of course, with the victory at Daytona came fame, the type that reminds Bayne constantly how supportive the NASCAR fan base is.
"You also realize there's no off switch," he says with a chuckle. "It isn't like when you leave the track, you can flip a switch to off and fly under the radar and go out to dinner and not be noticed.
"So for me, when I was going out to eat or whatever, when I was flying around the country for media things, I realized how big our sport was within the country and just realized what the fan support was like. ... I don't think that was something I ever really expected. I think I knew it, and I knew the Daytona 500 was a huge thing for me, but I thought I always felt that because I was a race-car driver. When I got to the point where I realized that most of the people in the United States cared about it, that's when I was kind of in shock about it."
This year, Bayne hopes to run full time in the Nationwide Series and to stay healthy after Lyme disease hospitalized him for five weeks and short-circuited his 2011 season.
"Then I'd love to win another Cup race this year," he says. "So between those (goals), I think it can be a really successful season."