CINCINNATI — Trevor Bayne lived a fairy-tale sports moment. Even to him, it still seems like a dream.
One day after his 20th birthday, driving for a part-time Sprint Cup team, Bayne won the 2011 Daytona 500.
So unexpected was the victory, the kid from Knoxville realized afterwards he had no clean clothes. That was a problem since the Daytona 500 champion goes on a nationwide media tour.
Rocky and Stephanie Bayne found a Daytona laundry room and kept the washer and dryer humming until 3 a.m. to make sure their son would have something clean to wear when he went to New York City to chat it up with David Letterman.
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By the time Trevor Bayne got to the Left Coast, the magnitude of what he'd done began to sink in. Vice-President Joe Biden called to congratulate him. So did Tim Tebow.
A police escort took him to famed Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco. "There are all these people out there with signs. People who I didn't think would ever watch racing," Bayne said. "It was crazy."
Making the talk show rounds in Los Angeles, Bayne appeared with both George Lopez and Ellen Degeneres. A fellow guest, Baywatch actress Pamela Anderson, told the driver he reminded her of her son. "That was pretty funny," Bayne said.
Back in those heady days, it was thought Trevor Bayne would rise through NASCAR like a rocket. Instead, four years later, he is clawing for Sprint Cup relevance.
"For me, it's been a grind," Bayne said. "It's been an up and down career so far."
Bayne was in Cincinnati on Monday appearing at Lachey's sports bar on behalf of Kentucky Speedway. The fifth Quaker State 400 will run in Sparta on July 11.
Rather than becoming NASCAR's next big thing after his 2011 Daytona 500 victory, Bayne spent three years in a form of Sprint Cup purgatory. The sponsorship money necessary to allow Bayne to race full time in NASCAR's major leagues proved elusive.
It was not until this season, after Carl Edwards jumped from his long-time ride at Roush Fenway Racing to drive for Joe Gibbs, that car owner Jack Roush was at last able to put Bayne in a full-time Cup ride.
Unfortunately for Bayne, 24, he got to Roush Fenway as one of NASCAR's historically premier teams has been in a multi-year competitive lull.
A season-best ninth-place finish for Bayne in Sunday's rain-shortened race at Michigan moved him up from 30th to 27th in the Sprint Cup points. His RFR teammates Greg Biffle (20th) and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (28th) have also struggled.
"It's been definitely tough," Bayne said. "It's been a rockier start than I would have hoped for in my rookie season."
That's why, rain or no, Bayne had a big smile on his face Monday over the ninth-place run at Michigan. For the No. 6 Ford, it was the first finish of better than 18th this season.
"We didn't just steal a top-10 finish," Bayne said. "I felt like we had a top-15 car all day long. We restarted 12th on that last restart and got to ninth. For our team, it's huge shot in the arm."
The years between his Daytona 500 tour de force and the present tested Bayne. His track record driving in what is now called the Xfinity Series (NASCAR's Class AAA) was so-so. In 151 career Xfinity starts, Bayne has two wins — at Texas in 2011 and Iowa in 2013.
He fought mysterious health issues. Starting in 2011, Bayne suffered from chronic fatigue, arm numbness and double vision without knowing why. Finally, in 2013, doctors at the Mayo Clinic diagnosed him with multiple sclerosis.
Of his health, Bayne said "I'm doing good, really great. I haven't had any issues. I can train as hard as I want to and as hard as I need to."
In 2015, while hoping for faster race cars, Bayne has had a reason to celebrate.
Some weeks back, he was in Richmond, Va., for a testing session. At 7:30 a.m., his phone rang. Bayne was surprised to see his wife Ashton's number come up.
"Normally, she doesn't get up that early if I'm out of town," Bayne said. "I'm like, 'What's going on here?' She's like 'Babe, we're pregnant.'"
The baby, the couple's first, is due in December.
For Trevor Bayne, his real-life Hollywood moment in Daytona Beach in 2011 no longer stands as the thrill of a lifetime.
"Getting married and having a baby are definitely the top," he says, "even over winning the Daytona 500."