No. 26 team can breathe easy after Daytona Duel
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- More than an hour had passed since the end of the first qualifying race Thursday at Daytona International Speedway, and Brandon Davis still looked emotionally spent. And with good reason -- it wasn’t just his race car that was trying to squeeze into the Daytona 500, but an entire community in need of some positive news.
In the end, driver Michael Waltrip got the finish he needed to ensure a berth in the Great American Race for Swan Racing, whose No. 26 car is outfitted in a green and white paint scheme honoring the victims of last year’s school shooting in Newtown, Conn.
“Missing the race wasn’t an option, as far as I was concerned,” said Davis, who late last year purchased the assets of the Inception Motorsports team owned by David Stremme. “We had a lot of pressure, our team is new, and we’re not heavily funded. We’re making our way through this. It was a load. It was a lot for me to sit out there for my first Daytona 500, and watching the race, and we’re running up front and then the caution -- I about lost it. It was nerve-wracking.”
Understandably so, given that his team wasn’t guaranteed a spot in the race. Although only two of the 45 cars attempting to qualify for the event would ultimately be sent home, the Swan organization still took the step of replacing regular driver Stremme with two-time Daytona 500 winner Waltrip for Speedweeks. Their bid took on a degree of emotional heft two weeks ago, when Davis, Waltrip and NASCAR officials quietly traveled to Newtown to unveil a memorial paint scheme for the sport’s biggest event.
"I was carrying a lot of hopes and dreams and people that I wanted to cheer up on my car."
-- Michael Waltrip
So missing the race would have resonated well beyond Daytona, given that the No. 26 car is also raising money for the Sandy Hook School Support Fund through a texting campaign. No wonder Stremme, who watched from atop the pit box, said he hadn’t been able to eat all day. No wonder Waltrip reported that he was shaking on the final lap. No wonder Davis went pale when he saw cars spinning in the vicinity of his vehicle, unaware that Waltrip had been ahead of the wreck.
“It seems every time that it would be the worst race in the history of the world to ever miss,” Waltrip said. “But I was carrying a lot of hopes and dreams and people that I wanted to cheer up on my car, so it meant a lot to us to put it in (the 500). I mean, two cars are going to miss it, but if I get wrecked in that crash, I could have been one of the two.”
The unfortunate pair instead turned out to be Brian Keselowski and Mike Bliss. Waltrip emerged unscathed from the accident, and even crept as high as fifth off the final restart before being shuffled back in the draft. In the end Waltrip finished 14th in the first of Thursday’s first Daytona Duels, claiming the next-to-last spot that would automatically transfer into Sunday’s Daytona 500.
The relief was evident throughout the Swan Racing team -- they hadn’t let Newtown down. Stremme was more than happy to call the body hangers the organization had on emergency alert and tell them to stand down -- the team’s primary car had made it through unscathed.
“It’s a big deal,” said Stremme, who will take over driving duties beginning next weekend at Phoenix. “It’s not like you’re representing a company. We’re representing 26 angels and all their families, and really hoping to put some smiles back on some peoples’ faces up in Newtown, and also raise some money for their foundation. That’s a big thing.”
Of course, Davis had been through all the worst-case scenarios, turned over all the ways his team might somehow miss the race. He felt Waltrip’s speed from front-row qualifying day would still have been fast enough to get in had he finished outside the top 15 on Thursday, but Davis preferred to not take that chance. “I told them before we went out, if we didn’t have to do any math when we finished the race, we’re in good shape,” he said. “And we didn’t.”
Particularly given what the vehicle represents. On the visit to Newtown, Davis met with victims’ families, first responders and town officials. The No. 26 car is raising funds through a campaign that donates $10 for every text of “Newtown” to the number 80888. NASCAR Chairman Brian France and his wife Amy began the process by donating $50,000, an amount that will be matched by the NASCAR Foundation.
So, pressure? You bet there was pressure.
“Back in the fall when we raced Talladega, one of my good friends lost a daughter, and we had her on the hood of our car. In that scenario we had a family we were working for and had to make the race for. In this scenario, we had the whole country,” Davis said. “For the families and everything they’re going through right now -- I hope this gave the as much excitement as it did for us. I hope that it passed through. Because it was tense, to say the least.”
That anxiety obscured just how fast Waltrip’s car was at times Thursday. The veteran was charging toward the front with Denny Hamlin and Trevor Bayne behind him when the latter two were caught up in an accident that began when Hamlin wobbled down into Carl Edwards. On the ensuing restart, Waltrip nosed up to fifth before his line began to fall backward in the draft.
“I’m optimistic,” said Waltrip, who will start 29th Sunday. “I had a car I was just able to run right along there in the middle of everything with, and was very comfortable just logging laps, and when it came time to go, we went. And it looked like we were there -- and we weren’t.”
Regardless, crew chief Tony Eury Jr. believes that with a little fine-tuning, the vehicle can be a contender in the Daytona 500. Its starting spot assured, the Swan team can now also afford to be more aggressive.
“I think we can be in the top five,” Eury said. “With Denny behind us when we were leading that pack, nobody’s put laps together like that in the draft. Those were pretty solid laps … and that just shows you the car has speed in it. But we had to be smart today. Me and (Waltrip) talked, and it’s like playing golf. You’ve got to chip one up on the green. Just get it on the green. If you want to make a 60-yard putt, you can try to make it later on.”
That comes Sunday, when the Newtown car rolls out for NASCAR’s biggest race, trying to contend in the Daytona 500 and bring some cheer to a community all at the same time.
“You’ve just got a lot of people with heavy hearts up there who need something to look forward to with life going on,” Eury said. “The Lord does things for a particular reason, and nobody can understand way things happen. The only thing you can do is make yourself better for it and move on with your life. We look at it as, this is something for those people to look forward to. Maybe they can sit down and enjoy the 500 and have a car they can root for that means something to them. That’s kind of where we are with it. We just want to show those people that we care about them, we’re thinking about them and we want everyone to continue to think about them.”
For the principals on the race team, that’s much easier now with the stress of qualifying behind them.
“I’m glad,” Davis said, “that’s over with.”
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