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Martin Fennelly Columns

Could Bayne be ready for an encore?

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Published:   |   Updated: March 19, 2013 at 02:54 PM

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DAYTONA BEACH Today, for the first time, he can legally raise a real glass to his stunning Daytona 500 victory. Not that he would.

That's right: 2011 Daytona 500 champion Justin Bieber turns 21 today. Did I say Justin Bieber? I meant Trevor Bayne. It was a year ago that Bayne shocked the world by winning NASCAR's biggest race.

"That was a Cinderella story," driver Kurt Busch said.

Bayne is back at the high banks to try and defend the title.

"This time it's different," he said. "It's a little more busy for us."

The wholesome grin is still wide, the face and outlook are still so impossibly young. His 500 trophy sits in the bedroom where he grew up in Knoxville, Tenn.

"I thought it was cool having it there, because all my friends I grew up with and family, they can come over and see it," Bayne said. "It's on my dresser, just hanging out."

Life changed nearly instantly after that Sunday last February. Bayne described one day in his life after winning the 500: "I think we're in New York or something, or maybe we were in Connecticut, and I'm on the phone with Vice President Joe Biden. I talked to Tim Tebow that day, met Pamela Anderson, Ellen DeGeneres and George Lopez, all in the same day. I'm just like, 'What is happening?' "

Ah, the Pamela Anderson meeting …

"She told me I looked like her son, so that was pretty cool," Bayne said.

Not everything has changed. Like last season, Bayne doesn't have a full-time ride in Sprint Cup racing and isn't guaranteed a spot in this year's 500. He doesn't even have a full ride or major sponsors in the Nationwide Series, the rung below Sprint Cup. The economy isn't helping.

"Obviously, as a young guy, you want to have championships under your belt and full seasons," Bayne said. "I'm a little disappointed, because I want to be racing all the time."

When he came to Daytona last year, the 20-year-old, running just his second NASCAR race, thought Top 15 would be awesome. Even in the lead, he didn't quite believe.

"I was like, 'Man, this is cool, I'll be able to tell my friends I led at the Daytona 500,' " Bayne said. "I still didn't expect to win ... And then we win this thing. On the plane the next day, I looked down at the (championship) ring. I almost started tearing up. I thought, 'Man, this is real.'

"Coming back here, and being called the champion, I still don't think that I understand it."

Life threw its share of wrenches Bayne's way after the 500. He spent several weeks last season recovering from Lyme disease from a tick bite. He decided, yeah, maybe he should pull in, when he began seeing double as he circled the track with 42 other cars.

"It's pretty tough when you're racing against 84 people out there," Bayne said with laugh.

Bayne, who is Baptist, is a Tebow fan. And he's sort of a Jeremy Lin fan …

"Basketball, right?" Bayne asked.

He admits that right now "it's cool to be a Christian."

He added, "I don't even want to have to say anything. I want people to look at me and say there's something different about this kid, he looks different, he acts different, he has joy."

Bayne went on a mission trip to Kenya last month.

"What's wild about people in Kenya is no matter who you are, if you're from out of town or American, and you show up on their front porch, they're pulling out chairs and trying to give you food at their mud huts. They're incredible people. I would tell anybody to go check it out because, to me, it's very humbling.

"These people hardly have anything and here they are, their kids are so happy. They've got their bellies sticking out from being malnourished, but they're the most pumped kids in the world to be alive. It was an incredible experience."

Trevor Bayne is a pumped kid, too. Here he is, back at Daytona, looking for the other glass slipper.

"That's the plan. We wouldn't have come if we didn't think we could win. A little more pressure this year; we're not quite under the radar. But I think we can go for it, sure."

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