As a mourning nation shared in the extreme sadness of the Dec. 14 school shooting in Newtown, Conn., the tragedy especially hit home for NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France, a father of four.
NASCAR President Mike Helton had a direct connection to the Newtown community. A friend's son runs the family nursery business there, and his young sons knew many of the victims and their loved ones.
Video: Official announcement
So France and Helton reacted to this gut-wrenching situation as NASCAR has so often: with a huge heart and a big plan. And they are confident that NASCAR fans will help.
NASCAR CEO and Chairman Brian France announces the new No. 26 car honoring the Sandy Hook school shooting victims alongside Sandy Hook First Selectman E. Patricia Llodra.
Driver Michael Waltrip shows members of the Sandy Hook community images of the new No. 26 car.
Two-time Daytona 500 winner Michael Waltrip joined France, NASCAR's Chief Communications Officer Brett Jewkes, Swan Racing owner Brandon Davis and Michael Waltrip Racing Executive Vice President of Business Development and General Manager Ty Norris on a private visit to Newtown last week, when they spoke with town officials and spent time with victim's families and the first responders.
There were no reporters. It wasn't a made-for-TV moment. It was a time of genuine comfort and heartfelt outreach.
And it was just the beginning.
One week after the meeting in Newtown, NASCAR, Swan Racing and Waltrip announced Thursday that the team's Daytona 500 entry ?- driven by Waltrip -- will run the No. 26 (instead of its normal No. 30) in honor of the 26 victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. The Toyota Camry will carry the green and white memorial ribbon on its hood and boldly feature a large decal on both sides of the car inviting NASCAR fans to make a $10 donation to the Sandy Hook School Support Fund by texting NEWTOWN to 80888.
France and his wife Amy have personally donated $50,000 to kick off NASCAR's race to help and heal, and their donation will be matched by the NASCAR Foundation.
"Being in Newtown last week and delivering a moment of happiness to that community was unlike anything I've ever experienced," France said.
"Looking out at a room of smiling faces amidst the aftermath of a horrible tragedy was very powerful. It hit me that the NASCAR industry and our passionate fan base, which always help those in need, have an unbelievable opportunity to rally around this cause and make a huge difference for a community in need."
As France told them in Newtown last week, "Have a little smile on that particular day (Daytona 500). .... We're very, very humbled and honored to be here with you today."
Waltrip, known for his flair with sponsors and fan appeal, said he sees this opportunity as one of the most important and emotional endeavors he's every been a part of.
He wore a "Newtown" green hat and memorial bracelet with his suit during the visit last week. NASCAR's ultimate ambassador of good will autographed the first responders' fire hard hats and offered hugs and smiles of comfort to everyone he met.
"I'm known as the guy that talks about his sponsors more than anyone else and I can't wait to use all the networks that are available to me in order to bring attention and awareness to this cause of raising money," Waltrip told the group. "Seeing your faces makes my heart hurt but being here and knowing what we're going to accomplish makes me happy."
Waltrip has also confirmed that all three of his Michael Waltrip Racing cars also will carry the "text NEWTOWN to 80888" decal for the Daytona 500.
"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."
Sandy Hook Fire Chief Bill Halstead, who joined the Sandy Hook Volunteer Fire Company as a 16-year-old Newtown High School student, was at the firehouse when the call came from the elementary school. He and his corps set up a triage area for victims on that day in December. Halstead looks forward to the Great American Race and appreciates the efforts of NASCAR, France Waltrip and Davis.
"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," Halstead said. "It will be something positive to rally around, and there will be smiles on faces that haven't smiled in quite a while."
NASCAR will utilize its biggest stage, the Feb. 24 Daytona 500, to not only bring awareness to the Newtown cause but to make an immediate difference.
"I know from history, that when we rally for the right causes, our millions of fans join us, they always do," France said.
Michael Waltrip was among the NASCAR representatives to meet with first responders from the Newtown tragedy. (Getty Images for NASCAR)
NASCAR Chief Communications Officer Brett Jewkes (left) and NASCAR Chairman Brian France visited Newtown First Selectman E. Patricia Llodra and other town officials and families. (Getty Images for NASCAR)
NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France and Michael Waltrip met members of the Newtown community as they displayed a special No. 26 Swan Racing Toyota that has been designed for Waltrip to drive in the Daytona 500. (Getty Images for NASCAR)