Updated at: 02/14/2013 6:08 PM
By DAN GELSTON
(AP) DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Michael Waltrip is driving the Daytona 500 for Sandy Hook.
Waltrip has switched his car number to 26 for the Daytona 500 in support of the Sandy Hook Special Support Fund. The two-time Daytona 500 winner was set to drive the No. 30 Toyota for Swan Racing in a one-race deal, but the number is being changed to honor the victims. Sandy Hook is the school in Newtown, Conn., where 20 first-graders and six adults were killed by a gunman on Dec. 14.
The No. 26 car was unveiled at Daytona International Speedway on Thursday and had a black and green ribbon on the hood. Waltrip also owns Michael Waltrip Racing and all three entries will run with the "text NEWTOWN to 80888" decal for the Daytona 500 on Feb. 24.
"We’re putting our whole heart around this race and this cause," Waltrip said.
NASCAR chairman and CEO Brian France, Waltrip and others in the sport visited Newtown last week and met with town officials, community leaders, first responders and victims’ families. The visit was kept quiet until the announcement at Daytona.
"We hope it’s something that gives Newtown, and the citizens there and families, something to cheer for and root for, something to break up the sadness," NASCAR president Mike Helton said.
Waltrip said he was proud to raise money for the fund, and was touched to meet families who told him how much the dedication meant to them. Waltrip won the 2001 and 2003 Daytona 500s.
The Sandy Hook support fund, established jointly by United Way of Western Connecticut and Newtown Savings Bank, raises funds to help with the immediate financial and mental health needs for people impacted by shooting. The fund was designed to meet the needs of the Newtown community.
France, and his wife, Amy, made a $50,000 donation to the fund that will be matched by The NASCAR Foundation.
"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," Sandy Hook fire chief Bill 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."
David Stremme returns to the No. 30 car in Phoenix. The season-opening Feb. 24 race marks the debut for the team under new owner Brandon Davis.
Helton first approached Davis about running the car in honor of Sandy Hook.
"It gave me a lot hope that we’re giving the people of Newtown something to look forward to," Davis said.
Online: Donations can also be made online at newtown.uwwesternct.org
(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)