NASCAR to honor frontline health care workers as drivers return to the track

A decal bearing the name of the Real Heroes 400 NASCAR Cup Series auto race is displayed on the car of driver Chris Buescher Sunday, May 17, 2020, in Darlington, S.C. NASCAR, which has been idle for 10 weeks because of the coronavirus pandemic, makes its return at the track Sunday. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

(CNN) — NASCAR racing returns Sunday after more than two months off due to the coronavirus pandemic that shut down much of the country. The comeback race at Darlington Raceway in South Carolina has been dubbed The Real Heroes 400 and will be held without fans, according to NASCAR.

The event will honor health care workers as part of the The Real Heroes Project, a collaborative initiative among more than a dozen sports leagues to recognize and pay tribute to medical professionals on the front lines fighting COVID-19.

“As the coronavirus challenges our country in unprecedented ways, the frontline healthcare workers — the nurses, paramedics, emergency physicians and many others — continue to inspire us with their strength and bravery in caring for their fellow Americans,” said Jill Gregory, NASCAR executive vice president and chief marketing and content officer. “These men and women are the real heroes and the NASCAR industry is incredibly proud to honor their selflessness and service.”

Each driver’s name will be replaced above the driver-side window with the name of an individual healthcare worker currently battling the coronavirus pandemic, NASCAR said. Those honored will also serve as grand marshals for the race and appear on TV simultaneously to give drivers the command to start their engines.

‘Be There Bears’ honored by NASCAR

Among the health care workers who will be honored is Michelle Vaughan, an ICU nurse at the Bon Secours St. Mary’s Hospital in Richmond, Virginia who came up with a creative way to connect COVID-19 patients and their loved ones who cannot be together due to increased restrictions at hospitals.

Vaughan developed the Be There Bears project to help ICU patients hear their loved ones’ voices by placing recorded phone messages from family members into teddy bears, Bon Secours said.

“After calling several families and hearing the messages they left for their loved ones, it brought me to tears. Taking it one step further, getting to put the bears in the arms of the patients, I was overcome with pride and happiness to know that my patients might be able to feel their families’ presence,” Vaughan said. “It’s so important not only for our patients to feel the love and support of their families, but for us as nurses to feel connected to our patients and their families as well.”

Vaughan’s name will be on FedEx Racing driver Denny Hamlin’s car during Sunday’s race. Hamlin tweeted a video message about the honor on Thursday, noting he’s “lucky enough to go back to work” this weekend “and it’s because of the frontline hero like Michelle Vaughan.”

Ryan Newman’s Return to Racing

Sunday’s race also marks the comeback of driver Ryan Newman, who was injured in a fiery crash in final seconds of the Daytona 500 in February.

Newman was in the lead in final lap of the race when another driver hit his bumper, sending his car into the wall and causing it to flip into the air. Then, his car was hit by another after it landed back on the track, sending him airborne again. Newman’s car burst into flames as it skidded, upside down, across the finish line.

Rescue crews had to cut the car’s roof off to pull Newman from the vehicle. He miraculously walked out of the hospital two days later.

At a news conference on Thursday, Newman said he has no memory of his horrific crash, nor does he remember his hospital stay until he was leaving with his kids.

“I was medically treated to not know (about my condition.) They were trying to keep me in a somewhat of a medically-induced coma from what I’ve been told, and that medicine kind of zoned me out, so I really don’t have any memories or recollection of any of my crash until I actually had my arms around my daughters walking out of the hospital,” Newman said.

Newman will make his 22nd Cup Series start at Darlington — a track where he has 13 top-10 finishes with seven top-five finishes.

“I’m hoping to do every lap and then one more after that,” Newman — who was cleared to return to racing April 28 — said of Sunday’s race. “I think they are having a victory lap still. I was ready to do that in Daytona.”

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