This weekend at Auto Club Speedway, Trevor Bayne will have something he hasn’t had in at least four years – a chance to contend for a NASCAR victory.
That comes included in the opportunity to drive the No. 18 Toyota GR Supra for Joe Gibbs Racing in seven Xfinity Series races this season, the first of which comes Saturday.
Bayne, the 2011 Daytona 500 winner, has three victories across NASCAR’s three national circuits – the crowning achievement in Daytona, coupled with two Xfinity Series wins, one each in 2011 and 2013.
Checkered flags and champagne celebrations proved hard to come by for Bayne over the years. But the 31-year-old understands the staggering success JGR has achieved, particularly in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, which included 12 victories in 33 races last year. Those expectations drive Bayne’s goals even higher.
“To me, this feels like the reset,” Bayne said. “And I don’t know what comes of this. I don’t know if I end up back in a Cup car full time or an Xfinity car contending for championships. That’s what I would love to see happen. But I feel like in seven races, I need to go win three to five races if I’m going to have a shot at a comeback. That’s my goal.
“That’s what I told (crew chief) Jason Ratcliff. I said, ‘we got to go five (wins), man.’ And maybe it only takes one or two. I don’t know. But to have a shot in the 18 car, that’s my goal.”
To put that hope into perspective, Kyle Larson won 10 of 36 Cup Series races last season, or 27.8%. That was an astronomical win rate and one not achieved by anybody since Jimmie Johnson in 2007.
Bayne, who hasn’t competed in Xfinity since 2016, Cup since 2018 and made eight Camping World Truck Series starts in 2020, is setting the bar at a minimum win rate of 43%, eyeing at least three race wins in seven races.
The undertaking will be steep, especially after such a lengthy departure from behind the wheel. Without testing and with limited practice at the track, Bayne has had to rely on simulation sessions courtesy of Toyota Racing Development, SMT data and watching in-car video of Kyle Busch wheel around the track, all of which has proved invaluable for Bayne, who hasn’t competed at Auto Club since 2018.
“But it’s not the real thing,” Bayne said. “I know that, so there’s going to be a bit just getting used to how fast it is again and getting used to some things. The handling will be different, but the tools that are available I’ve been using.”
For Bayne, even the idea of competing for NASCAR championships may have been absurd three years ago. By the end of the 2018 season, the then-driver of Roush Fenway Racing’s No. 6 Ford was burnt out. He started that season believing he was the team’s full-time wheelman before Matt Kenseth was brought into the fold to help diagnose the once-dominant program’s ailments.
Eventually, Bayne ran from racing. Whether that was by starting his own coffee shop, Mahalo Coffee Roasters, just outside his hometown of Knoxville, Tennessee, or finding other things to do, Bayne wanted something different.
But every time he ran from it, racing always found its way back – and sometimes, even stronger than when he stepped away.
The opportunity is now in his hands. But just because the equipment is there doesn’t mean the results will be too.
Ty Dillon, who found himself without a ride following the 2020 Cup Series season, found his way to JGR’s No. 54 Xfinity Series entry in 2021 for four races. While that particular car won 11 races, Dillon’s best finish was 14th. His other three finishes were all outside the top 30, including two DNFs.
“I know that I’ve got to learn really fast, and I’ve got to get up to speed really fast,” Bayne said. “So until I run the first lap on the racetrack and see where we end up on the board, I’m just nervous and don’t know what to expect. I may go lay down a lap and be P1, or I might be four-tenths (of a second) off. Like, I really don’t know, until I get there and get on the track.”
Bayne will get an opportunity to practice the car this weekend, an obvious advantage given his long absence from the series. But time is limited if Bayne wants to make a long-lasting return in competitive NASCAR equipment.
“For me, this feels like the first shot all over again,” he said.