Trevor Bayne basks in the glory of being ‘in the game’ again at Talladega

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TALLADEGA, Ala. – As NASCAR officials scurried between cars checking every wheel for five lug nuts, dozens of team members, reporters and driver’s family members waited on the pit wall at Talladega Superspeedway.

The delay took several moments after Sunday’s Geico 500, and it allowed for an unusual scene as the top finishers moved unencumbered between their cars to swap post-race tales of their good fortune over the course of a wild 500 miles on the 2.66-mile oval.

No one seemed to be having a better time than Trevor Bayne.

He debriefed at length about the closing laps with Ryan Blaney. He shared a laugh with Jamie McMurray and Austin Dillon. He entered a long conversation with past NASCAR champions Kurt Busch and Bobby Labonte, who offered an encouraging pat on the shoulder.

After finishing 10th and leading a career-best 22 laps – seven fewer than he led over 93 starts from 2011-15 – Bayne looked like he belonged Sunday.

More importantly, the 2011 Daytona 500 winner felt as if he did, too.

“We’re in the game,” Bayne said. “We’re not just out here taking up a spot. I feel like we’re in the race. We pushed Kurt to the lead there. It’s just fun to be in the game here.”

PODCAST: Hear Trevor Bayne candidly discussing his career and the 2016 season on the NASCAR on NBC podcast

His No. 6 Ford was in the game at Talladega until the final restart with three laps to go. Bayne was third and on the inside line, delivering a massive push that briefly shot Kurt Busch into the lead past winner Brad Keselowski.

But as the action moved up the banking, Bayne was left on the bottom without any help. Blaney, his reliable drafting partner all day, had a badly damaged rear bumper that precluded him from riding shotgun.

“I NEED HELP!” Bayne screamed with two to go on the team radio as he nearly slipped from the lead draft. He recovered to salvage 10th with nary a drafting partner – a testament to the strength of his car.

“We probably had the fastest car here,” crew chief Matt Puccia said. “We knew we did on Friday in practice. We just played it safe and were just riding there. Got shuffled out at the end but great effort by this team, they’ve done a great job all year long.

“We came up short, but that’s Talladega. You have to be in the right lane at the right time. Really proud of these guys. They’re working hard week in and week out. We got one coming.”

It’s easy to shoulder the disappointment when everything seems to be trending in the correct direction.

Bayne’s second top 10 in 10 races of 2016 – tying his season-best total in Cup – moved him up two spots to 16th in points. The Roush Fenway Racing driver won’t need a miracle win to make the NASCAR playoffs for the first time at this rate.

But he will head to the July 2 race at Daytona International Speedway with the knowledge that he will bring a proven Ford that was among the only cars to emerge unscathed in a Talladega wreckfest.

“These races are gut wrenching from Lap 1 on, so I felt like that was the most calm race I’ve ever had,” he said. “I don’t have any damage on the Adovcare Ford. We’ll take it.”

Bayne took the lead for the last time on Lap 156 – six laps before the 21-car crash that wiped out much of his competition. He wisely had heeded the advice on his team radio to restrain himself – as difficult as it was for a 25-year-old who is 102 races removed from his last win (which came in only his second start).

“The car was really strong, but this place is all about patience,” Puccia said. “Even though you have a fast car, you can’t do it by yourself. You step out of line and get yourself in trouble real fast. He did a really good job staying patient, staying in line. It just didn’t work out for us

“But people have been talking about us all year long. We’ve had speed everywhere we’ve gone. That’s what we’ve got to carry on. We’ve got to keep progressing and moving the needle. That’s what we’re doing every week, and it’s starting to show. It’s a morale booster seeing how we ran today.”

And no one’s confidence seemed higher than Bayne, who seemed one of the guys inside and outside the car.

“It is so refreshing to come to the race track and have a chance,” he said. “I feel really good about the pieces they are giving me. It is all about the race cars. I’m surely proud of this team.”