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Pics: Fallen Marine and warship’s namesake to be honored at Memorial Day race by NASCAR champ

NASCAR driver Kurt Busch looks over personal items that belonged to Corporal Jason L. Dunham. (Bob Self/Florida Times-Union/TNS)

It was a spring day on patrol in 2004 when 22-year-old U.S. Marine Cpl. Jason Dunham and his squad spotted an ambush in Karabilah, Iraq, and ran to help.

Dunham, on his first posting out of Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay, used his body and helmet to cover an exploding grenade and saved his squad before dying eight days later from his injuries.

NASCAR Driver Kurt Busch (black shirt) looks over the 5-inch gun on the bow of the USS Jason Dunham. (Bob Self/Florida Times-Union/TNS)

On Sunday May 30, Dunham’s name will race at Charlotte Motor Speedway atop the windshield of NASCAR driver Kurt Busch’s No. 1 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet Camaro at the Coca-Cola 600. But on Monday, Busch unveiled that 550-hp race car next to another vehicle that also bears Dunham’s name — the 105,000 horsepower USS Jason Dunham.

Based at Mayport Naval Station, the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer honors Dunham, who was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for service in the Iraq War. The ship was christened in 2009 by Dunham’s mother, Debra Dunham, and Busch said he is honored to carry her son’s name on his race car.

NASCAR Driver Kurt Busch puts on a cap from the USS Jason Dunham. (Bob Self/Florida Times-Union/TNS)

“It’s incredible, the amount of pride that every sailor takes in this boat and the amount of patriotism that you feel just walking aboard makes you proud to be an American,” Busch said. “It’s our honor to carry this name on our windshield.”

The fallen Marine Corps member’s name and rank are flanked by stars on the windshield of the Ganassi Racing display car. The real thing will carry the same red, white and blue banner on Memorial Day Sunday, commemorating the ship’s namesake, Commander Steven Puskas said.

“I feel honored to be a part of that, knowing the family, Deb and Dan Dunham,” Puskas said. ” … That he was chosen to be honored in this year’s race is a great feeling and I am glad I could give him (Busch) that tour, glad I could get my crew out here and see it.”

The commanding officer of the USS Jason Dunham assists NASCAR Driver Kurt Busch (Bob Self/Florida Times-Union/TNS)

NASCAR’s longest race of each season is the Coca-Cola 600, traditionally held on the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend. For the past six years, the top part of the windshield on each of the 40 drivers’ cars has carried the name and rank of a service member who died in action as part of NASCAR’s “600 Miles of Remembrance.”

The 22-year-old Dunham was the first Marine Corps Medal of Honor recipient for Operation Iraqi Freedom, according to Marine Corps University. Assigned to the Marine Corps Security Forces at Kings Bay, he was deployed in 2004 to Iraq, a rifle squad leader on April 14 when they heard gunfire, spotting a Marine convoy being ambushed, the university states.

Dunham and his squad began fighting, then spotted seven Iraqi vehicles trying to flee and stopped them, the university stated. As the Marines approached, an insurgent attacked Dunham, who wrestled the man to the ground. Dunham saw the man release a grenade and warned his fellow Marines before covering the explosive with his helmet and body. Dunham died at the Bethesda Naval Hospital, his actions saving the lives of at least two other Marines.

The commanding officer of the USS Jason Dunham shows NASCAR Driver Kurt Busch the 50 caliber machine gun on the bow of his ship (Bob Self/Florida Times-Union/TNS)

NASCAR assigns the names of fallen military members to each racing team for the Memorial Day race. Dunham’s name was chosen by the American Legion, who asked his family for permission, then team sponsor GearWrench agreed as well, Ganassi spokesman Jeff Dowling said.

“GearWrench has actually invited the family to the race, and even a couple of the Marines that Jason saved through his selfless actions,” Dowling said. “They are honored. From what I could tell about him, he’s a reflection of them. They are selfless. They don’t really want any credit or anything. … But they were very excited about it at the same time.”

Busch is a veteran NASCAR competitor in his 20th full season. A 2004 Cup champion, he has won 32 times in NASCAR’s premier division, including the Daytona 500 and Coca-Cola 600, where he finished fifth last year.

NASCAR Driver Kurt Busch recounts driving a speed boat as the commanding officer of the USS Jason Dunham. (Bob Self/Florida Times-Union/TNS)

Busch received a stem-to-stern tour of the Dunham by the commander, from the noisy depths of the engine room’s four jet turbines to the dual helicopter hangars. He saw Dunham’s Marine Corp dress uniform and swords in the officers’ mess, then gazed at the young man’s photo in Jason’s Dugout, the crew’s mess.

Like the race car driver that he is, Busch seemed to enjoy the bridge and its helm and throttle controls, manned separately when the 9,500-ton ship is in restricted waters by the youngest sailors on board, Puskas said.

“Are you telling me that I have a job?” Busch said.

“I think you got a job,” the commander responded.

Busch posed for photos as he handled one of the .50-caliber machine guns on the bow. Then he pulled out a Jason Dunham “Always Faithful, Always Strong” challenge coin that the fallen Marine’s mother had surprised him with.

“This is way too much for me to hold and keep forever,” Busch said. “I will race with this challenge coin in my left pocket for the Coca-Cola 600 in a few weeks. … But I won’t keep it. It needs to go back to her and the family. It’s quite an honor to be able to do this.”

Given an American flag that has flown on the ship, Busch said it will wave over their pit box at the race.

The names and ranks of fallen service members will also adorn the pace car and grand marshal cars at the 600-mile-long race that kicks off at 6 p.m. and will be broadcast on Fox Sports.

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