It was a day of celebration for those who qualified for Sunday’s Daytona 500, but no one could have been happier than Michael Waltrip who finished 14th in the first Budweiser Duel at Daytona International Speedway Thursday afternoon.
The 49-year old founder and co-owner of Michael Waltrip Racing was behind the wheel of a car that does not belong to him. He will also step aside after the race to hand it back to regular driver David Stremme so he can go back to running his Cornelius, North Carolina based MWR.
Stremme graciously stepped aside for the Great American Race because Waltrip, car owner Brandon Davis and Swan Racing are on a mission, one that hopes to raise money for the Newtown, Connecticut community in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy.
The specially designed green and white No. 26 Toyota will start 29th emblazoned with call-to-action decals encouraging the NASCAR community to make $10 donations by texting NEWTOWN to 80888.
“It seems like I was carrying a lot of hopes and dreams, people that I wanted to cheer up on my car,” said Waltrip. “There's a lot of people up in Connecticut with a smile on their face right now. I'm real proud to get in the race for them.”
Waltrip avoided a crash that took out Denny Hamlin, Carl Edwards, Regan Smith and Trevor Bayne, who despite their bad luck in the Duels will still race on Sunday. The No. 26 would not have made it if the car was collected in that four car pileup.
"There were a lot of people that just wanted to get through some laps and understand what was going on,” Waltrip said. “There were some of us that would have run like that until they threw the checkered just to make the race. And then there were some that decided it was time to go, and they made it work."
In other Budweiser Duel news, Danica Patrick and Jeff Gordon had clean races which assured them that, barring an engine change or a crash during upcoming practices, they will lead the field to the green flag for the Daytona 500 with Patrick on the pole.
Brian Keselowski, the older brother of current Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski, and Mike Bliss failed to qualify. Keselowski’s car had problems keeping up with the field and fell out of contention early in the first duel while Bliss was forced by NASCAR to come into the pits due to a safety issue helping him to fall five laps down because his window net came loose.