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Stories of service, sacrifice inspire NASCAR drivers, fans this Memorial Day weekend

Holly Cain

The men and women to be honored during the NASCAR Salutes Refreshed by Coca-Cola Memorial Day weekend tribute at Charlotte Motor Speedway demonstrate integrity, pride and bravery. Their stories cannot help but inspire both those inside the race car for Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 (6 p.m. ET on FOX, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) and those watching the great race in person.

Each race team is commemorating a fallen soldier, a person who gave the ultimate sacrifice – his or her life – for our country and for our freedom.

RELATED: Full schedule for Charlotte | NASCAR Salutes returns

The stories of these brave and honorable people are as diverse as they are inspiring. And each soldier, airman, Marine and sailor is absolutely just that – inspiring.

Brad Keselowski will carry the name of U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Chris Eckard on his No. 2 Team Penske Ford. Eckard, who was born in the heart of NASCAR country, Hickory, North Carolina, served in both the U.S. Army and the Marine Corps. He deployed to Iraq, then re-enlisted, ultimately losing his life in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province on Feb. 20, 2010. He is survived by his wife and two sons.

RELATED: Keselowski meets family of fallen Marine

The driver of the No. 13 Chevrolet for Germain Racing, Ty Dillon, will carry the name of Army Private Charlie Anthony, who was killed in May of 1969 while serving in the Vietnam War. Anthony was a star on his Naples, Florida, high school basketball and track teams before being drafted into service a year after graduation. Just before deploying, he married his high school sweetheart Laura and they had one daughter, Cassandra. Anthony was awarded the Silver Star, the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart, posthumously.

Erik Jones, 21, will carry the name of fellow Michigan native, U.S. Army Corporal Nicholas Roush, on his No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota. Roush was killed at the age of 22 while serving in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in the Herat Province of Afghanistan. It was his very first deployment. He is survived by his mother, Donna, father Robert and brother Bobby and Kyle, all of Middleville, Michigan.

Indiana native Ryan Newman will carry the name of U.S. Navy Corpsman Ryan Lohrey on his No. 31 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet. Lohrey is from Anderson, Indiana – a short drive from the famous Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Lohrey, 31, served as both a Navy and U.S. Marine Corps parachutist and died July 10, 2017. He received a Purple Heart in addition to earning the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal and a Combat Action Ribbon with gold star in place of a second award. He was married to Cassie and they have three children.

NASCAR’s own Liberty University student, Hendrick Motorsports driver William Byron, will honor a fellow Liberty community member. U.S. Army Major Michael Donahue, 41, was an alumnus and assistant professor of military science at Liberty who taught in the school’s Army ROTC program. Donahue served three combat tours of duty (in South Korea, Iraq and Afghanistan) and was killed Sept. 16, 2014, by a Taliban suicide bomber in Kabul, Afghanistan. Among the many honors he received for his service were a Bronze Star, a Purple Heart and the Meritorious Service Medal. He is survived by his wife Sherry and three children.

Kyle Larson’s No. 42 Chip Ganassi Chevrolet will carry the name of Captain Kimberly Hampton, of Easley, South Carolina. Hampton was an honors graduate and accomplished tennis player at Presbyterian College who served as battalion commander of the U.S. Army ROTC unit there. She would command the Delta Troop in the 1st Squadron of the 17th Cavalry Regiment. The helicopter she was piloting was shot down Jan. 2, 2004, and she was the first female pilot killed in Iraq. Hampton, 27, was stationed with the highly-regarded 82nd Airborne Division in Iraq and had previously served in both South Korea and Afghanistan.

These are a few of the moving stories about servicemen and service women that Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series drivers will honor in Sunday night’s race. Each driver will have a different serviceperson on their car, representing generations of military service.

A pre-race “Salute to the Troops” will feature demonstrations from all five branches of the U.S. Armed Forces and the salute will include F-15 fighter jets, a Blackhawk helicopter, Humvees, Howitzers, a HIMARS rocket system, a Marine MTVR vehicle and two Combat Rubber Raiding Crafts.

RELATED: See how Charlotte has honored the military through the years

The Fort Bragg Firing Party will take part in a 21-Gun Salute and the Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force will have interactive, fan-friendly displays in the speedway’s Fan Zone.

Senior leaders representing all five branches of the military will address the crowd.

Adult tickets to the Coca-Cola 600 start at just $49 while kids 13 and under get in for $10; Tickets, camping and upgrades are available online or by calling 1-800-455-FANS (3267).

MORE: Buy tickets for Charlotte race weekend