Trevor Bayne—one-hit wonder or the real deal?
That's the biggest question resulting from Bayne's unlikely and unprecedented victory in Sunday's Daytona 500.
The Great American Race was won by the All-American Boy.
But will Bayne be remembered as a fluke winner, or was Sunday's win the start of what could be the start of a long and illustrious racing career?
Even more, could what Bayne did Sunday vault him into the category as the "next" Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson or Tony Stewart?
I've been around motorsports for more than a quarter century, and I can unequivocally say without a doubt, yes, this is the start of a long and illustrious career.
And yes, he is the "next" star of Sprint Cup.
That's a pretty big and bold prediction, I realize, but Bayne is no Trevor come lately. This kid has been earning his stripes—including the rookie stripe that was on the back of his 500-winning race car Sunday—since the age of five.
Do a little digging on his career and you'll find he won over 300—count 'em, THREE HUNDRED—races in the karting world as a young up-and comer.
He was sought after by some of the biggest names in the sport when he made his intentions known that he wanted to go racing full time—Jack Roush, Michael Waltrip, Teresa Earnhardt, just to name a few.
This same young man completed just two years of high school before dropping out, prepared to fulfill his dream of one day being a race car driver… and more important, a race car driving star.
(For the record, he did complete and earned his General Education Development degree, a point I wanted to illustrate to those who said he gave up his education to chase a risky dream, at best).
I started hearing about Bayne back in 2008, when he drove for Dale Earnhardt Inc. in the Camping World East Series. Names like Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Danny O'Quinn, Stephen Wallace kept bouncing off the tongues of owners and the media as the potential stars of tomorrow.
But while Bayne was oftentimes mentioned in the same breath, I also heard that this young man from Knoxville, TN had an incredible feel for a race car. Talk around the NASCAR garage was that Bayne was destined to make a name for himself in due time.
Yet no one would have imagined it would have come Sunday, one day after he went from 19 to 20 years old. Oh, and I might point out, he's still too young legally to have drank the 500 winner's champagne. Ah, just a little technicality.
Think about it for a second: The legendary Wood Brothers, who have been part of the sport from its beginning and have enjoyed great success collectively as a team as well as with some of their drivers, including NASCAR Hall of Famer David Pearson, elected to forego the relationship they had the last few years with future Hall of Famer Bill Elliott in favor of putting Bayne behind the wheel of the red and white No. 21 Motorcraft Ford Fusion this year.
I mean, for the Wood Brothers to say adios to the legendary Elliott and then take a gamble on Bayne says a lot about Glenn and Eddie Wood's eye for talent.
While Elliott did great things for the Wood Brothers, Bayne will likely go on to do many more things—not only wins, but also one or more Sprint Cup championships in his career.
Bayne is slated to run about 11 Sprint Cup races for the Wood Brothers—maybe a few more after Sunday's incredible triumph.
But his real day job will be in the Nationwide Series, where he'll race the entire 2011 campaign for Roush Fenway Racing. And given the success this young buck has had in other forms of racing, I'm willing to bet that he comes close to winning the championship this year.
I can easily see him finishing in the top three, particularly since Sprint Cup drivers are no longer eligible to compete for the Nationwide championship.
After Sunday's win, Trevor Bayne is a Daytona champion and will be one for the rest of his life. No one can take that away from him.
I remember sitting down one day about six or seven years ago with the great Bobby Allison. We were in Daytona at a meet-and-greet between former greats and fans.
One thing Allison said stuck with me: "Even if you only win once, you'll always be known as a Daytona 500 champion. Whether you're at a track, on stage or going through an airport, you'll always be known as someone who was the best of the best for that one particular race."
Sure, there've been other drivers who have enjoyed success at Daytona, only to have mediocre careers at best since then. Derricke Cope immediately comes to mind. He won the 1990 Daytona 500 and another race the same season at Dover.
That was it for Cope's career. Never reached victory lane again in a Cup car. But even today, 21 years later, he still proudly wears his Daytona 500 winner's ring and a occasionally a jacket that also touts such an incredible achievement.
There is a down side to Bayne's win Sunday, though. Well, not exactly for him.
David Ragan, the Georgia driver who Jack Roush chose to keep over Jamie McMurray after the 2009 season, when NASCAR mandated that team owners can only have four teams, has gone from the frying pan into the fire thanks to Bayne's win.
Ragan has never lived up to or fulfilled the expectations or hype around him. Not even close. He has a huge high-profile sponsor in UPS, yet he's still chasing his first Cup win, his first season finish in the top 10 and his first entry in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
You read it here first: If Ragan has another miserable season in 2011 like he had in 2010—and particularly since he is also in the final season of his current contract with Roush Fenway Racing—don't be surprised to see Bayne driving the No. 6 UPS Ford in 2012, especially coming back to Daytona as defending champion.
For all the talk about the two-car drafting and smaller restrictor plates to reign in speeds for Sunday's race, Bayne ultimately wound up stealing the show.
Knoxville couldn't be prouder of its favorite son—especially since its college football team hasn't been much to speak of the last couple of years.
It would be easy to reach for rhetoric and say the torch of stardom was passed to Bayne on Sunday. But you know what? I truly believe it was. We're not going to have guys like Jeff Gordon or Tony Stewart or even Dale Earnhardt Jr. around for another 10 years, I'm willing to bet.
But, God willing, we can easily look forward to another 25 years or so for Bayne. He is the future of NASCAR.
What a fitting start to what will likely be a great and storied career than for the All-American Boy from Knoxville to win the Great American Race in storybook fashion.
For sure, it doesn't get much better than that.
Pick up Jerry Bonkowski's latest book, "TRADING PAINT -- 101 Great NASCAR Debates", published by Wiley & Sons, at your local bookstore, or online at Wiley.com.