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Waltrip driving for Sandy Hook victims

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Sunday, Feb. 24, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
 

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla.

Michael Waltrip, a two-time winner of the Daytona 500, will make a resounding statement Sunday when he pulls his car onto the storied racetrack at Daytona International Speedway.

Waltrip proudly honored the 26 Sandy Hook shooting victims by putting that number on his Toyota Camry. The Sandy Hook School Support Fund-sponsored Swan Racing car will start 29th after earning its way into the 43-car field during Thursday's qualifying duel races.

“We needed to make it for the folks in Newtown, Connecticut,” said Waltrip, owner of Michael Waltrip Racing. “We wanted to have something for them to smile about on Sunday, and now they do.”

Waltrip and Swan Racing donated $50,000 to the fund in an effort to raise awareness to gun violence like the mass shootings in Newtown, Conn. It was an unfathomable tragedy that stunned the country and challenged Congress to engage in the political wrangling required to pass meaningful gun law legislation.

Waltrip, who often speaks with a defiant voice, has declined to say where he stands on the controversial gun issue. When pressed for an answer as he walked to the garage, he said nothing.

At some point, Waltrip has to deal with the inescapable reality that his NASCAR brethren are closely aligned to the factions — NRA and Republicans — that doggedly oppose gun control reform while the majority of the country are demanding background checks, closing the gun show loop hole and a ban on assault weapons.

Realistically, this is a bridge too far, even for a maverick such as Waltrip. He can passionately support the families of Sandy Hook, but he appears hesitant to take on NASCAR's brass, many of whom made significant contributions to Congressional Republicans — including Rep. Vernon Buchanan (R-Fla.) and Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ken.) — who aren't likely to concede or compromise their positions to protect Second Amendment rights of their constituents.

Yet, of the 75 million NASCAR fans, more than 70 percent support some form of gun reform. And 92 percent of Americans support implementing background checks.

While Waltrip might be tight-lipped about where he stands on this issue, race fans will be reminded of the consequences of guns in the wrong hands as the No. 26 Toyota contends for NASCAR's most prestigious prize.

“It's always something,” Waltrip said. “It seems like every time I was carrying a lot of hopes and dreams for people that I wanted to cheer up on my car. The folks at Swan Racing said we're going to come in and race, and figure this out.”

Swan Racing threw all its weight behind the Sandy Hook project. David Stremme went to auctions to find the right car. He bought parts from Waltrip's team and Roush-Fenway Racing to piece together a ride to show the organization's support for the families of the Sandy Hook victims.

“No one is working any harder, cares more, wants to be part of this deal more than David,” Waltrip said. “It's a big deal for the team, for the sponsor and the (Newtown) community.”

It'll be an even bigger deal if one of NASCAR's own uses his money and political clout to influence Republicans and Democrats alike to deal seriously and expeditiously with passing gun control reform that could prevent another Sandy Hook massacre.

Ralph N. Paulk is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at rpaulk@tribweb.com or viaTwitter @RalphPaulk_Trib. Listen to the Auto Racing Show with Ralph N. Paulk every Friday on TribLive Radio at 9 to 10 a.m.

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