DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Trevor Bayne won instant fame with his surprise Daytona 500 victory last year. He earned a small fortune, too.
He didn't get what he really wanted, though: a full-time ride.
Going into Sunday's season-opening Daytona 500, the 21-year-old Bayne is as surprised as anyone that he's only running a partial schedule for the Wood Brothers in the Sprint Cup Series this year. His situation is even more unsettled in Nationwide, where Roush Fenway Racing is committed only to run the first three races of the season and is hoping a few good runs can attract some more money.
"I figure if we can maybe be leading the points by then, then it would be hard for them to stop racing," Bayne said. "But you would hope you could accumulate some kind of funding or some kind of sponsorship after the year that we had last year. It's just tough right now for us, and for every team out there."
Bayne and reigning Nationwide Series champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr. are two of the most prominent up-and-coming drivers in NASCAR. In happier economic times, they might have Fortune 500 companies falling all over them.
The fact that neither driver has a full-time ride in Cup even caught the attention of five-time champion Jimmie Johnson.
"We're seeing a lot of things showing that it's turning around, and hopefully it turns soon and the young guys that are kind of in the queue now will be able to ride it out and get a chance when the time comes," Johnson said. "But it's crazy to think that Ricky Stenhouse, Trevor Bayne, you look through the list and they're the first two that come to mind. They've had great success - and white race cars."
Bayne's stunning Daytona win kicked off a 2011 season that NASCAR officials believe was engaging enough to give the sport a momentum boost for 2012. It ended with an epic title fight that ended with Tony Stewart edging out Carl Edwards in the final race of the season.
NASCAR Chief Marketing Officer Steve Phelps believes those stories will drive fan interest this year, and Phelps sees other signs that NASCAR is rebounding from the hit it took when the economy started sputtering.
"If you go back a couple of years, obviously, the economic downturn certainly affects our sport more than any other because it's so dependent on sponsorship," Phelps said. "When marketing dollars dry up, sponsorship dollars are part of those (deals) drying up. But you've seen it start to cycle back, and it's really getting healthier and healthier."
Phelps says NASCAR has seen an overall increase in sponsorship every year since 2009 - especially in terms of sponsorship activation, the extra advertising and events that companies do to support their sponsorship programs.
Phelps says NASCAR has plenty of stories to draw in casual fans and keep hard-core fans riveted this year. Will Johnson rebound from what was an off season by his standards? Can Stewart win another title? How will Edwards rebound after coming so close to a title?
And don't forget Danicamania, as Danica Patrick now is racing in NASCAR on a full-time basis.