This past weekend, I had the privilege of attending the “Matthew and Daniel Hansen 400” in Richmond, Virginia.
Believe me, I don’t throw around the word “privilege” all that easily.
I arrived in Richmond on Friday afternoon with eight writers from various websites including teammates Tracy Pendergast, Brett Singer, and guide Zack Nobinger. After an absolutely fantastic dinner at Book Binders, my teammates and I sat down to plan out our strategy for the next day.
We arrived at the track a little before noon and commenced with the Scavenger Hunt. The nine of us were split into three different teams, and sent out on a wild chase to capture things like lugnuts, pace car rides, and information from Matt Kenseth, Matthew Hansen, and Rodney Atkins.
I will resist simply recapping my day (which was absolutely amazing) and let the pictures speak for themselves. The race was also unbelievable, and I will get to it in a second.
I even met Miss Sprint Cup, who used to be on the Bachelor (I have my wife to thank for knowing these things).
Regardless, three things in particular stood out to me that I will never forget:
1. Crown Royal is a classy organization and put on a fantastic event that emphasized what was truly important.
As I stated in my article on Friday, because of my religious beliefs, I do not drink alcohol. You can probably imagine that I stood out like a sore thumb at a NASCAR race…especially one hosted by Crown Royal. But I was blown away when I asked some Crown Royal representatives why they wanted to get into the NASCAR market in the first place. Their answer?
“We at Crown Royal want to encourage people to drink responsibly. We have always represented quality over quantity, and we want to get that message across to fans of NASCAR.”
As cool as this was, Crown Royal then proceeded to one-up themselves.
For an event that should have brought Crown Royal lots of marketing and sales opportunities, they seemed to go out of their way to neglect these opportunities in order to do one thing: honor our nation’s military.
In fact, when I asked Rodney Atkins why he wanted to be involved with the event, his answer was simple, yet awesome:
“Crown Royal never came and asked me to represent their product. From the beginning, they asked me to come and honor the troops. It was an easy choice for me.”
As cool as it was to be granted unbelievable access to the pits, garage, press room, luxury suites, etc…it was even more satisfying to walk around the track, literally surrounded by military from every branch. Shaking hands with Marines, talking with guys in the Army and Navy, and thanking members of the Air Force for their sacrifice, truly was one of the most memorable parts of my day.
2. Matt Kenseth was REAL.
At 2:00 on Saturday, Matt Kenseth took about twenty minutes out of his busy schedule to answer some questions of mine and the other writers.
Like I said before, I am a fan of NASCAR, but I’m not exactly the most knowledgable aficionado of the sport. However, there was one question I really wanted him to answer.
NASCAR, more than any other sport, can be affected by luck. Your driver can race incredibly well; your pit crew can work their butts off and turn in five incredible pit stops; your crew chief can make all the right calls on adjustments and pit strategy; and yet, if the guy in front of you loses control, or a caution falls at the wrong time, sometimes you simply can’t control the outcome.
This being the case, I wanted to know how NASCAR drivers and their team determined success. Matt Kenseth’s answer was fantastic.
“It’s a little different from every other sport because there’s not one winner and one loser. There’s 43 cars out there, and obviously tenth is better than twentieth, but we always go back on Monday and look at what we did good, what we did bad, what we could do to improve, and we always try to improve for the next week.
We don’t necessarily have a number like, ‘We have to get seventh’ or anything like that, I mean you always go into the weekend trying to win, but sometimes as the week progresses, you see the speed of your car compared to everybody else, and I look to reach the potential of my car that week.
You might just have a tenth place car that week. You might not be able to get the speed out of it for whatever reason. I think it’s always important to be your best at the end of the race, make your best adjustments at the end, be running the highest you ran all day at the end of the race.”
As a coach, and fan of many sports, I thought this was one of the most important messages of the week.
It would be completely unrealistic to go into every race expecting to win and walk away unsatisfied at anything but first place. Sometimes, somebody else just has a better car. Other times, you just run into some bad luck. A fifth place finish does not equal failure.
The thing that impressed me the most throughout the interview was the genuineness of Kenseth. He looked you in the eye when you spoke to him. When he answered, he gave legitimate thought to his responses, and talked to you rather than at you.
I’m sure you all realize that, unfortunately, guys like Matt Kenseth are the exception to the rule in sports these days.
As a side note, I hope Kenseth remembers that there’s nothing wrong with finishing in tenth place on November 30th. That is when I will be racing against him in Las Vegas for a chance at winning $17,000.
Of course, I would have to beat him to win the prize…so let’s just hope his car isn’t very good that day.
3. I will never forget meeting Matthew Hansen and his wife.
This weekend, I was able to meet several military men and women that have sacrificed so much in order to give you and I a better life.
When I went to shake hands with Lt. General Richard Zilmer, my intent was to tell him “Thank you so much for all that you’ve done for our country.” I’m not ashamed to tell you that unfortunately, I was unable to get out any words, and I broke down in tears.
In all likelihood, you know a family member, close friend, or acquaintance that has traveled overseas to protect our nation. You may even know someone who has given the ultimate sacrifice.
But on Saturday, the number of men and women who were represented was just too much. I honestly didn’t know if I was going to even be able to speak during our interview with Matthew Hansen and his wife. The emotions that were coarsing through my mind and heart were just out of control.
I legitimately had to walk off by myself and collect my thoughts in order to finish out the afternoon.
Later, when Rodney Atkins pulled Matthew and his wife on stage to sing a song about triumphing over hardships, the tears came rushing back. I watched as Mr. and Mrs. Hansen danced together on stage, celebrating and commemorating his brother Daniel, who valiantly died in action overseas. I saw Marines in the crowd who had looked on stoically all night finally show a few glimpses of emotion.
This truly was the best part about the weekend.
As for the race, it was was awesome.
Matt Kenseth (my new favorite driver) had struggled in practice and only qualified 33rd, but from the get-go he seemed to have things figured out. He shot up all the way to 16th after only 77 laps. After a crazy pitstop where he almost got hit exiting, he kept moving up and soon found himself in the top ten.
He didn’t stop advancing. After 250 of 400 laps, the #17 car found himself leading the race. I have never been so excited. It seemed like everything was going to work out for the Crown Royal Crew.
Unfortunately, Matt ended up on the wrong side of luck this week.
With less than one hundred laps to go, he got caught up in an incident with Jeff Gordon while they were both running in the top ten. To be honest, Kenseth made one of the most incredible saves I have ever seen and ended up limping into the pits with a badly torn up right side. His crew (the best in the business) performed open-heart surgery on his car and unbelievably got him out only one lap down.
After that, his car just wasn’t the same. Kyle Busch ended up running away with victory, to the anger of every fan in Richmond. Kenseth finished in the top twenty-five, not terrible all things considered.
But the real winners of the day were Matthew and Daniel Hansen, the United States Military, and us as Americans. As the race ended, I thought to myself, “The right people were honored here today. Actual heroes, not just sports stars.”
To those at Crown Royal, Richmond, and especially Matthew Hansen – It truly was a privilege.