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Dave Burnham, Connecticut Cruise News, April/May, 2013

When Michael Waltrip took the green flag for the 55th running of the Daytona 500 in February, he did it in a used car no longer wanted by Earnhardt Ganassi Racing, one that had used parts purchased at auction or castoffs from Roush Yates. But that’s not only what made the car so unique.

Using the Daytona 500 – the biggest NASCAR race of the year – as a backdrop, Swan Racing, NASCAR and two-time Daytona 500 champion Michael Waltrip entered a special tribute car to raise awareness and contributions for the Sandy Hook School Support Fund.

Following a meeting with town officials, community leaders, first responders and victims’ families in Newtown, Swan Racing, NASCAR and Waltrip announced that the No. 30 Lean1 Swan Racing Toyota Camry would become the No. 26 Sandy Hook School Support Fund car. Waltrip’s ride for the Daytona 500 honored the 26 victims of Sandy Hook Elementary School and prominently featured decals asking the NASCAR community to make $10 donations by texting NEWTOWN to 80888.

The Sandy Hook School Support Fund, established jointly by United Way of Western Connecticut and Newtown Savings Bank, supports the healing process for the broader Newtown community including children, teachers, first responders, families, residents, mental health professionals, counselors and others, following the tragic events that occurred in December. One hundred percent of the funds raised for the Sandy Hook School Support Fund go to meet the needs of the Newtown community.

“Americans everywhere are heartbroken about the tragedy in Newtown and Swan Racing is proud to join NASCAR and the United Way of Western Connecticut to help the community move forward,” said Swan Racing owner Brandon Davis at the media day to announce the project.

“Driving the No. 26 Sandy Hook School Support Fund Toyota is like nothing I have ever been part of in my NASCAR career,” Waltrip said. “It will be an emotional week knowing that we have the potential to do so much good for the Newtown community. I’m racing for a reason.”

NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France also announced that he and his wife Amy would kick off the NASCAR industry support with a $50,000 donation that has been matched by The NASCAR Foundation, a 501(c) (3) non-profit that embodies the compassion of the NASCAR family and its commitment to serving communities.

“One thing I can tell you for sure is that there will be a whole lot of people in Sandy Hook and Newtown rooting for Michael and the No. 26 car,” said Sandy Hook Fire Chief Bill Halstead. “It will be something positive to rally around, and there will be smiles on faces that haven’t smiled in quite a while.”

When on track activities at Speed Week began, Waltrip qualified in 31st position. His time of 46.317 seconds (194.313mph) was just half a second slower than Danica Patrick’s historic pole position time. His time meant he would start 16th in the first 150-mile Budweiser Duel a couple of days later. The duel races would set the grid positions for the main event.

“The boys did a great job, the car drove great. I can’t wait to race for this team. They’re very energetic and a lot of fun. The car drove perfect. That was faster than we’ve been able to run since we’ve been here, and that’s about all you can ask for out of your boys,” Waltrip said after qualifying.

The former two-time winner took no chances in his Budweiser Duel and raced his way to 14th place. “That was a tense 60 laps,” Waltrip commented. “We ran the first 40 laps or so in a tense single file, a foot away from the wall at nearly 200 miles an hour. The other guys were all around me and I was nervous.

“I knew I needed to survive and not wreck. I didn’t realize that [Joe] Nemechek was behind me fighting for a position, but it turned out okay. It looked like we had put ourselves in a position to win the race. With that last restart I was pushing right at the front. I could see clear track in front of me. [Greg] Biffle was the reason it fell apart, his car was so fast. He held off the outside line from the middle of the track,” said Waltrip.

“There’s a whole bunch of people up in Newtown, Connecticut, that have something to smile about on Sunday. Their car is going to be racing in the Daytona 500, the greatest race in the world.”

The teaming up of Waltrip with Swan Racing was a one-off deal just for the Daytona 500. He is the team principle of Michael Waltrip Racing, and his three team cars driven by Clint Bowyer, Mark Martin and Martin Truex Jr. will carry decals in support of the Sandy Hook School Support Fund throughout the season.

“I’m racing for a community,” Waltrip told FOX TV before the start of the 500. “We’re hoping to help people heal and have a great day watching the Daytona 500. There’s a big viewing party in Newtown, and we hope we can raise a lot of money and make people smile.”

Waltrip started the race in 29th and ran near the back of the pack while assessing his options for the first 83 laps. When a caution flag came out on Lap 84, crew chief Tony Eury Jr. opted against pitting to keep his driver out and take the restart in the lead – a lead Waltrip kept for four laps.

“When we led I heard a big cheer and I think it came all the way from Newtown. That was special for me, to give those folks something to smile about. I hope running up front today made them happy,” said Waltrip.

He raced in the top six until he took a scheduled pit stop on Lap 123. After rejoining the race, the Camry’s engine dropped a cylinder, causing him to lose power and fall back into the field. Waltrip and the Sandy Hook School Support Fund Toyota finished 22nd.

“It was a great day. We got up front and we were able to use some strategy and get up in the top five and top 10. I have to thank everyone [at Swan Racing] for letting me do this. It’s been a fun couple of weeks for me down here. You don’t get to do stuff like this every day.”