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CONCORD, N.C. – When the No. 88 team gathered Wednesday afternoon on the Hendrick Motorsports campus, Nationwide had a very special event waiting for them.

The Hendrick Motorsports partner hosted a team luncheon and brought along TV wildlife advocate and director emeritus of the Columbus Zoo Jack Hanna as its guest.

“It’s really cool that Nationwide definitely is always thinking of things to do for the team,” Alex Bowman said. “It’s a rough week with the schedule for everybody, but it’s cool to kind of get a break and see all that.”

Hanna brought along a half-dozen animals to show the gathered teammates – ranging from a sloth to a penguin, an echidna, a cheetah and even a yellow lab that took the stage alongside the cheetah.

The animal expert showcased the unique traits of each animal with his signature wit that he showcased for 30 years as a guest on “Late Night with David Letterman.”

“To have Jack Hanna not only come in, but open up his personality – it’s real,” No. 88 team crew chief Greg Ives said. “You can see things on TV, but to see it in person, it’s definitely a really cool and neat experience.”

Hanna also explained his relationship with Nationwide, from taking his daughter to Nationwide Children’s Hospital when she was only 2 years old to the company’s continued support the Columbus Zoo and The Wilds.

That relationship is what brought Hanna to the Hendrick Motorsports campus, and he was impressed by what he saw.

“Are you kidding me?” Hanna said of his impression of the campus. “It’s just interesting to see all the work that goes into this. I love watching NASCAR. There’s something about what you all do. Being raised in Tennessee on a farm, me and all my buddies, nobody ever missed going to the track. I just love the noise and the whole excitement of it. You guys have a great sport.”

Ives thanked Nationwide for everything it does for the No. 88 team, recalling visits from Peyton Manning and Brad Paisley and trips to hockey games and the Nationwide Children’s Hospital.

Hearing from Hanna in person – and seeing the animals up close – was yet another highlight.

“Passion is very hard to quantify, very hard to put in a bottle,” he said. “When you’re doing something as long as you do it, whether it’s crew chiefing a race team, driving a race car or trying to save and support and have that relationship with animals, it’s very hard to see sometimes that passion. When you see Jack and his affinity for the animals, it’s definitely inspiring, especially sitting here getting ready to go into the start of the playoffs.”

He echoed Bowman’s sentiment that with the high-pressure environment heading into the playoffs, the luncheon was an enjoyable respite.

“We’re coming off of a long week with Indy, we’re coming off of a long night getting the car ready to take off, guys are tired, everybody’s kind of on the edge a little bit,” he said. “To be able to come in here, have a little bit of laughs, understand how life can be fragile, whether it was Jack’s daughter and the relationship they formed early with Nationwide or see amazing animals on the endangered list, it doesn’t really seem too bad when you only got a couple hours of sleep or you’ve got to fly out or things are happening. It puts it in perspective, and I definitely love the fact that we are able to do these events to allow you to kind of reset your mind and reset your ability to just get back after your daily job.”

For a photo gallery from the event, click here.