By Jerry Bonkowski
Just before he kicked off a seven-race, part-time deal to compete this season for Joe Gibbs Racing in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, Trevor Bayne made a bold prediction:
He told NASCAR.com he believes he can win between three and five of those starts.
That seemed a lofty expectation for a driver who last drove an Xfinity car in 2016, a Cup car in 2018 and a Truck in 2020. And his last NASCAR win on any level was back in 2013 in an Xfinity car.
But you know what? Doggone it if Bayne almost didn’t pull off an upset win in his first start for JGR in this past Saturday’s Xfinity race at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California.
Even with his time away from NASCAR, the Knoxville, Tennessee resident made his return look like riding a bike: he clearly hadn’t forgotten a thing. He qualified fourth, won Stage 1 and ultimately finished a close third to race winner Cole Custer and runner-up Noah Gragson.
“Over the past three years I didn’t know if I’d ever get an opportunity to race for wins again, but my desire to do so never faded,” Bayne said. “I’m so excited to have this opportunity to work with Jason (crew chief Jason Ratcliff) and everyone at JGR.”
In a sense, it’s all part of a larger plan for Bayne. You can’t get a much better or more successful organization than JGR, and if he can prove not only to himself but also to team owner Joe Gibbs as well as other team owners in the Cup and Xfinity ranks that he can win consistently in his comeback, his dream of returning full-time to one of NASCAR’s top two series may just come true.
That’s why Saturday was such a good start.
“I got to race for wins today,” a smiling Bayne said. “(I) didn’t get it done unfortunately, but I’m not going to get greedy with our first one back. … I’m back in a race car, battling for wins.”
Bayne shocked the NASCAR world on February 20, 2011 when, in only his second career Cup start and one day after his 20th birthday, he won the Daytona 500 driving for the legendary Wood Brothers.
Unfortunately, that would be – and remains – Bayne’s first and only win in 187 Cup starts. His other two NASCAR wins came in 153 Xfinity Series starts, once in 2011 and the other in 2013. He was also winless in eight Truck races in 2020.
In a sense, JGR threw Bayne a lifeline with the seven-race deal, but he’s looking at it as more of a second chance. And what he has to do to make the most of that second chance is simple:
“I’ve got to win races,” he says matter-of-factly.
Bayne will be one of several drivers piloting the No. 18 Toyota Supra for JGR in 2022. His next race is March 12 at Phoenix, followed by May 28 (Charlotte), June 25 (Nashville), July 16 (New Hampshire), Oct. 15 (Las Vegas) and Oct. 22 (Homestead-Miami).
While he’s not eligible to win the driver’s championship, how Bayne performs in his seven-race stint could go a long way toward helping JGR win the Xfinity owner’s championship.
Still, seven races is seven races, a far cry from what has kept Bayne busy for much of the last five-plus years, as he and his wife built a successful multi-store coffee shop business in Knoxville.
Bayne would have been happy remaining a java impresario. But his eight-race fill-in Truck stint for Niece Motorsports in 2020, even during less than ideal circumstances due to the COVID-19 pandemic, reignited his desire to get back behind the wheel.
He competed in several dirt late model races in 2021 and started knocking on doors once again. JGR answered, and now he’s the seasoned veteran competing against young kids, much the same way he himself was a young kid facing grizzled Cup veterans a decade ago.
“This is so much fun,” Bayne said. “These guys are really racy – all of these young kids – they race hard. We are here to win races; second or third, oh well. But Devotion Nutrition made this possible. Without them, I wouldn’t be in that No. 18 car. Super thankful to be here.”
Sure, it’s been a while since he raced full-time in one of NASCAR’s two top series, but having just turned 31 two weeks ago, Bayne has a lot of racing still left in his gas tank.
And if his seven-race deal ultimately pays off with his hoped for several wins, Bayne may very well still have more wins and potentially even a Cup or Xfinity championship or two still in him.
“I want nothing more than to come back stronger than ever,” Bayne said. If his run Saturday at Fontana is any indication, he may well be on his way to doing just that.
Follow Jerry Bonkowski on Twitter @JerryBonkowski