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Daytona win start of Bayne’s wild ride

By Michael Vega
Globe Staff / July 16, 2011

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Want to know what it’s like to ride a whirlwind? Come take a spin with Trevor Bayne.

The fresh-faced, 20-year-old Nationwide driver from Knoxville, Tenn., has been on one ever since he shocked the world in February. That was when he went to Daytona, Fla., as a relative unknown driving for the Wood Brothers and departed as NASCAR’s newest star by winning his first Sprint Cup race in his Daytona 500 debut.

“I wouldn’t trade that for anything, it was a pretty neat deal,’’ Bayne said, breaking into a disarming 100-kilowatt smile as he signed everything autograph seekers put in front of him - including a large Dunkin’ Donuts Styrofoam cup - Thursday at City Hall Plaza.

“You kind of set the bar high and set the expectations high at the beginning of the year when something like that happens,’’ said Bayne. “But I’m trying to keep it realistic and trying not to be too hard on myself and still trying to get better every race.

“Just because we won a Cup race, it doesn’t mean that I’m not still trying to learn. I’m only 20 years old. People kind of forget that now. They’re like, ‘Man, when are you going to win again?’ and I’m like, ‘Man, I shouldn’t have even won then.’ ’’

Bayne had no sooner made the remark when a young female fan - of which he has quite a few with his dashing good looks - approached and said, “Congratulations on your Daytona 500 win.’’

“Thank you,’’ Bayne replied.

Bayne was appreciative of the compliment. But if he needed a reminder of his seminal Sprint Cup triumph, all Bayne had to do was gaze upon the gaudy gold bauble on his middle finger: the ring awarded to the Daytona 500 winner.

“He can’t keep it on his finger, it keeps falling off him all the time,’’ said Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Bayne’s best friend and Roush Fenway Racing teammate.

“It fell off once at Walmart and [Stenhouse] was like, ‘Dude, what in the world?’ ’’ Bayne said, laughing. “I always play around with it. Sometimes you can tell if you’re hydrated, because if you’re hydrated it’ll stay on. If you’re dehydrated, it’ll slide right off. So that’s my gauge.’’

Bayne staged the latest installment of his “Ricky vs. Trevor’’ on-going competition with Stenhouse at Fenway Park Thursday. It was in advance of today’s New England 200 Nationwide event at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, where Bayne will drive the No. 16 New England Sports Network Ford and Stenhouse will be in the No. 6 Fenway Park 100 Years Ford.

The three-event “Ricky vs. Trevor’’ competition included a Frisbee toss off the Green Monster (point: Trevor), a dizzy-bat race on the warning track in front of the Wall (point: Ricky), and a pitching competition in the Red Sox’ bullpen (point: Ricky).

“He’s still the game guy,’’ Stenhouse said of Bayne, “but he’s just running wide open all the time now.’’

Bayne arrived in Boston at 6:30 a.m. Thursday after taking a red-eye flight from Los Angeles. The night before, he attended the ESPYs and mingled in virtual anonymity with a glittering collection of sports figures.

“I felt like a little kid out there, because there were so many huge guys,’’ Bayne said. “Everybody out there was 6-6, 300 pounds and just ripped. So I feel like next year, I’ve got to work out and get beefed up so I can fit in a little bit and look like an athlete. It was a really fun experience.’’

As great as his year started, it has not been all fun and games for Bayne, who was blindsided by a mysterious illness that manifested itself following his sixth-place finish in a Nationwide race April 23 in Nashville. The next day, Bayne said, he began experiencing nausea, fatigue, and double vision that led him to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., and forced him to miss a month of racing.

During his time away, everyone in the garage was concerned. Fellow drivers constantly texted him. Tony Stewart flew Bayne’s parents to see him at the Mayo Clinic on his private jet. Carl Edwards, who helped shepherd Bayne to the Roush Fenway stable, was with Bayne when doctors tried to explain why Bayne was experiencing double vision.

“He was extremely well composed in a situation that he was in, much more than I expected,’’ Edwards said. “He just seemed to be a very strong person.’’

Doctors conducted tests, but remained puzzled as to what led to Bayne’s protracted illness. Bayne said doctors thought it could have been Lyme disease, but were never certain.

“It’s kind of tough to think about,’’ said Stenhouse. “I talked to him a lot during that time. He actually handled it a lot better that I would’ve. His faith is what got him through that.’’

Through it all, Bayne never doubted he’d return to the track, doing so June 4 for the inaugural STP 300 at Chicagoland Speedway, where he finished third. He followed that with a fifth-place finish in the next race at Michigan June 18.

“It’s been a year of highs and lows and the lows were the medical problem that took him out of 4-5 [Nationwide] races,’’ said car owner Jack Roush. “That was really bad, because that really ruined his Nationwide year.’’

Bayne enters today’s race ranked 13th in the points and winless in 63 Nationwide starts, 13 this season.

“It’s been a lot of ups and downs, good times and times where I’ve had to have a lot of perseverance and keep learning and keep pushing to be better every weekend,’’ Bayne said. “I’d love to win in the Nationwide soon. I think that we probably should have by now, but we’re working on it and we’ll be approaching that soon.’’

Michael Vega can be reached at vega@globe.com.