DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Dale Earnhardt Jr. insisted he didn't believe in fairy tales and happy endings.
Trevor Bayne was too young to know any better.
Bayne, in just his second Sprint Cup Series start, pulled off a stunning victory in his first Daytona 500 on Sunday, becoming the youngest winner in the 53 years of the Great American Race. Bayne, who turned 20 the day before the biggest race of his career, held off Carl Edwards to win by 0.118 seconds.
As he crossed the line, Bayne screamed into his radio: "Are you kidding me?!"
The rookie had been great throughout Speedweeks in the No. 21 Ford, even proving his mettle by pushing four-time champion Jeff Gordon for most of a qualifying race.
With the win Bayne breaks Gordon's mark as the youngest winner in Daytona 500 history. Gordon was 26 when he won the 500 in 1997.
"I think it's very cool. Trevor's a good kid, and I love the Wood Brothers," Gordon said. "I'm really happy for him. And I think it's great for the sport. To have a young talent like that — he's got that spark, you know?"
The victory for NASCAR pioneers Leonard and Glen Wood ended a 10-year-losing streak, and came the week of the 10th anniversary of Dale Earnhardt's fatal accident on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.
That anniversary had everyone almost certain Sunday's win would go to Earnhardt Jr., the prodigal son, who shied away from the suggestion that the stars were lined up for a spectacular tribute to his father.
Bayne, whose official web site says "Coming Soon," never even allowed himself to daydream about such a magical finish.
"Our first 500, are you kidding me?" said Bayne, who needed directions to Victory Lane. "Wow. This is unbelievable."
The race had a record 74 lead changes among 22 drivers, and a record 16 cautions that wiped out many of the leaders, including Earnhardt Jr. on the first attempt at NASCAR's version of overtime. It put Bayne out front with a slew of unusual suspects.
David Ragan, winless in 147 career starts, was actually leading the field on NASCAR's first attempt at a green-white-checkered finish. But he was flagged for changing lanes before the starting line, then an accident that collected Earnhardt in the middle of the pack brought out the caution, and Bayne inherited the lead.
But he had two-time series champion Tony Stewart, now winless in 13 career Daytona 500s, lurking behind with veterans Bobby Labonte, Mark Martin and Kurt Busch, who had collected two previous wins over Speedweeks. All were chomping at the bit for their first Daytona 500 title, but Bayne never blinked, holding his gas pedal down wide open as he staved off every challenge over the two-lap final shootout.
"I've never been to a racetrack with this many people!" he yelled in Victory Lane.
Bayne was pushed by Labonte and had just enough fuel to get across the line ahead of a hard-charging Edwards. David Gilliland was third and Labonte settled for fourth.
Busch was fifth, Juan Pablo Montoya was sixth, Regan Smith seventh, and Kyle Busch, Paul Menard and Martin rounded out the top 10.
Earnhardt Jr. wound up 24th.
The race was a battle of attrition, thanks to the dicey two-car tandem racing at nearly 200 mph that was the norm throughout Speedweeks.
Hendrick Motorsports had a rough start to the season as three of the team's four cars, including five-time defending Sprint Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson, were involved in an early 14-car wreck.
Gordon, who started on the front row, and veteran Mark Martin also sustained damage in the melee.
Gordon questioned the aggressiveness of his fellow drivers, especially so early in the race.
"What I don't quite understand is why guys are doing it three-wide, three-deep running for 28th," he said.
Columbia native Carl Edwards wound up second in a Ford and seemed genuinely happy for winner Trevor Bayne.
"Second place in the Daytona 500 feels way worse than any other position I've ever finished in the Daytona 500," Edwards said. "But that is made better by listening to Trevor and how excited he is. He is really a nice young man, a great guy to represent this sport with this win.
"I think the world's going to like him a lot."