Trevor Bayne considers himself ready for a full-time Sprint Cup series job. Becoming the youngest to win the Daytona 500 -- at 20 years and a day, in 2011 -- reinforces that theory. So does competing vigorously for the 2011 Nationwide Series title before being felled by illness.
Friend and teammate Ricky Stenhouse Jr. went on to win consecutive titles in NASCAR's top developmental series in 2011 and '12, graduating to Roush Fenway Racing's Sprint Cup team this season with the departure of veteran Matt Kenseth. Bayne, after running selected Cup races (in a co-op deal with the Wood Brothers) and a limited Nationwide schedule with Roush last year, continues what would be just his second full Nationwide season. Patience isn't easy after that star-crossed 2011 campaign. But that's part of the deal at RFR.
"In a perfect world, they would run four Cup teams and Ricky and I would both run in Cup," Bayne said. "But they definitely want me to have a full season in Nationwide before I go Cup racing full-time, even though I feel I'm ready and we're competitive enough. I feel like we've proven ourselves, but I feel you have to step back and go prove yourself again a little bit."
It's not necessarily where Bayne thinks he should be, but that's where RFR's developmental plan has him. And it's hard to argue with the system.
One of the few NASCAR teams that recommitted to developing in-shop performers -- from drivers to mechanics and engineers -- after an economic downturn sapped the financial resources being invested by sponsors, Roush continues to move its top prospects to Cup only after they prove themselves in the lower series.
Stenhouse replaced veteran Kenseth in the Cup series after the longtime Roush performer and 2003 Sprint Cup series champion left for Joe Gibbs Racing. Roush's Cup lineup of Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle and Stenhouse has combined to win five championships in the top three NASCAR series for Roush. Edwards has finished as the runner-up in the Cup series twice, Biffle once.
Waiting is difficult. Performing more so. But promotion rarely comes at RFR without mastering both.
"It's always been in Jack's DNA to have a developmental program," said team president Steve Newmark. "We think it's fundamental to our success.
"We had a decision to make because funding dried up a few years ago for the Nationwide program, or at least it wasn't as plentiful as it had been before."
Newmark said team owners Jack Roush and John Henry decided three years ago to subsidize the Nationwide program as needed, which at the time meant running Bayne and Stenhouse in cars that were not fully funded. Stenhouse, who had been briefly removed from a Nationwide car after a spate of early-season crashes in his rookie year of 2010, responded. Bayne raced well also, his biggest accomplishment coming on loan to the Wood Brothers in the Daytona 500. The team, one of NASCAR's building blocks, had not won the sport's greatest race since 1976.
"Quite frankly, we were pretty fortunate it played out fairly well in that Trevor wins the Daytona 500 that year, wins a Nationwide race, is obviously sidelined a little bit by the sickness, and Ricky wins his first Nationwide championship after having a rough beginning to the prior season," Newmark said. "It is a model we think works for us and we'll hope to continue."
Newmark said the team's goal is for Bayne to "anchor a Cup car for us one day," and another complete Nationwide season is the preferred course. He understands Bayne would like that day to arrive sooner.
Bayne enters this weekend's Nationwide race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway 11th in Nationwide points. He won the pole but finished 31st after enduring engine problems at Daytona, but was fourth last week at Phoenix.
"Trevor would tell you he wants to be full-time Cup and we respect that, and Jack wants to see that drive and passion and dedication," Newmark said. "I think we look for the long-term. I think the model that Jack believes has served drivers well is developing that experience and maturity in the Nationwide series, or a series lower than Cup.
"I think we saw that with Ricky [it] was three years. A lot of people speculated he could have made the jump to Cup last year after his first championship, and it was a decision of Jack's to sit down with the crew chiefs and Ricky and kind of had a joint decision that the best thing would be another year of Nationwide.
"I think over the long haul that will serve him well, and I think the same thing will be true with Trevor. Do I think he could be running full-time Cup right now? Yes. Do I think that the best thing for his long-term development and long-term prospects to win a Cup championship would be to spend a full season with one crew chief, an established crew and going to every track, several of them multiple times? Yes."
Roush is an advocate of plans and progressions, but he fosters a belief in his drivers that their talent can change timetables. He announced that Carl Edwards -- who had not yet run a Nationwide race -- was the heir apparent to Mark Martin's Cup car after Edwards, then 24, won a truck series race at Daytona in 2004. Roush has institutionalized the stoking of vigorous internal competition.
"Jack definitely stirs it up," Bayne said. "He's in there, in the pot, stirring it up more than most owners do, actually. We have a Monday morning meeting and come in and talk about our weekend, and he'll come in and say, 'OK, who was least?' And whoever finished worst has to go first and tell him how the weekend was.
"You get to the end of the meeting and he'll ask, 'Are you going to go win this weekend?' And you'll say, 'Yeah, we're going to go try win it.' And he'll say, 'Well, you know you have to beat him [his teammate], right?' And we're responsible for beating them and the other 42, too."
Bayne said that while he and Stenhouse essentially felt pitted against each other for a coveted Cup ride, they were still able to remain cordial because of their pre-existing friendship. Cohorts and Bible study partners, they have been able to separate professional from personal.
"Ricky and I were great friends before we ever got there, fortunately," Bayne said. "Because we already had that foundation, we were able to kind of joke with each other about it. But I tell you, it makes it tougher on you when you know you're racing one of your best friends for a job.
"We try to keep it on the race track, and when we're off the race track we're buddies and have our Bible study together and hang out. But once we get on the race track, I'd say Ricky and I probably race each other harder than anybody out there because we know, 'I really have got to beat that guy.' He feels the same way I do. It's a mutual thing. When we're off the racetrack, we call it a day and move on."
Indeed, when confronted with questions about how he would race girlfriend and fellow Cup rookie of the year aspirant Danica Patrick this season, Stenhouse referenced his 2011 campaign with Bayne.
"Trevor and I are great friends and we were racing for a championship," he said. "One point separated our championship when he got sick. But if you ask him, and ask me, we raced really hard on the racetrack, really close, but we were respectful and gave each other enough room to get the job done. Off the track, we did that all the time. I think that's just part of it. I think there's a lot of drivers in the garage that are good friends off the racetrack that go out and race hard against each other. We both still have a job to do."
Bayne's malady in 2011 -- finally diagnosed as Lyme disease -- cost him five races and most of the momentum he had built after winning the Daytona 500 in just his second Cup start.
Roush likes creative tension but not antagonism, Newmark said, noting that the team's developmental structure is designed to produce drivers ready to advance to a new series in a manageable timeline. Though Stenhouse and Bayne were on-track rivals and off-track foils in a Ricky vs. Trevor marketing campaign that even served as an ersatz car sponsor, they were not, Newmark said, battling for one Cup job. RFR contested four Cup teams in 2011, but David Ragan was released after the season because of sponsorship woes. This season, Bayne is the experienced member of the RFR Nationwide program, with Travis Pastrana attempting his first full season after transitioning -- following a serious injury two years ago -- from adventure sports and rally.
"The way Jack set it up and the way it's been, it has not been we're going to have three guys in Nationwide and the prospect of only one of them moving up, so you guys are essentially in a competition against each other," Newmark said. "When Ricky and Trevor were both in Nationwide, the goal was for both of them -- and there was space for both of them to be up in the Cup series -- to move up.
"Although they are always equated with each other, Ricky had more experience than Trevor. He was further along in the progression. Similarly, although there's probably a friendly competition between Trevor and Travis, I think it's pretty clear the next step is for Travis to have a couple seasons in Nationwide where the hope is Trevor is farther along and he's ready to step into the full-time Cup seat."