There is something about dirt track racing that just seems to get to every racer. At least that was the case at the third annual Prelude to the Dream at Tony Stewart's Eldora Speedway.
The NASCAR superstar numbers continue to increase in the annual charitable race, with Jimmie Johnson and Robby Gordon being the newest members making the trip to the Big E. Granted, it's hard to turn down Tony Stewart, and of course there's Kyle Petty's Victory Junction Gang Camp, which benefits from the Prelude, but there is also the thrill of riding Eldora's dirt high-banks.
Just check out this 2008 all-star driver list: Aric Almirolo, Dave Blaney, Clint Bowyer, Carl Edwards, Bill Elliott, Ray Evernham, Red Farmer, Jeff Gordon, Robby Gordon, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth, Bobby Labonte, Mark Martin, Ryan Newman, David Reutimann, Ken Schrader, Kenny Wallace, and J.J. Yeley. Also, NHRA drag racers Ron Capps and Cruz Pedragon were on hand.
You would have sworn that NASCAR was actually carrying out a dirt race for the first time in decades. The NASCAR flavor was further carried out with the familiar NASCAR paint schemes on the Dirt Late Models being raced.
Further evidence of the excitement of this race was the fact that many of the dirt stock cars were owned by the Cup guys themselves, where in earlier Preludes most of the cars were provided by local teams.
It was a fund-raising event, for sure, but there was a motivation to the visiting drivers to do as well as possible because it would certainly be the subject of discussion in the NASCAR garages. There were a number of the NASCAR drivers who even tested for the event.
To determine if the apparent love of dirt was authentic, an informal poll with the NASCAR drivers was carried out asking the question: "What would your reaction be if a couple dirt races were added to the Sprint Cup schedule?" The reaction was almost unanimous for having them. Here are a few of the comments:
* Former Sprint car driver Dave Blaney: "Heck yes, I'd like to do it. Driving on the dirt is still a big thrill to me."
* Matt Kenseth: "To me, driving on dirt isn't as bad for me as driving road courses. One thing you have to get used to driving dirt is that the track surface is constantly changing."
* Ryan Newman, another dirt open wheel veteran: "Heck, I have lobbied to have Cup dirt races. Running on dirt is just like being back home and I miss it. Tony (Stewart) tried to get an IROC dirt race and almost got it."
* Team owner Ray Evernham: "That would be awesome as far as I'm concerned. Heck, you might see me come out of retirement if they did that. You know, ARCA runs Cup cars on the dirt, we could do it too."
* Kasey Kahne, who learned his driving skills in dirt Sprint Cars: "It would be great if something like that could be worked out. Driving dirt is such a trip for me. Driving on dirt is why I drive today like I do."
* J.J. Yeley, who said he would be ecstatic if dirt were added: "I can even tell you the tracks I would like to run--Eldora and DuQuoin, Illinois."
* Robby Gordon indicated that his dirt racing experience occurs with the off-road race trucks in the desert: "But dirt is dirt and those off-road trucks have big V-8 engines and lots of horsepower. Include me on the list that would like to see it happen."
This was the third Prelude with Stewart winning the first in 2006, and Carl Edwards did his patented winning back flip last year. There was hope that a new driver could win in 2008. But it didn't work out that way. Stewart (Smoke) took the race for the second time before a record crowd of 23,000 from 46 states and four foreign countries--Canada, Australia, Denmark, and Germany.
Smoke started third and quickly did away with the front row of Kenseth and Harvick. He led the complete 30-lap affair, but faced a serious challenge from Clint Bowyer, who tried to get by Smoke on several occasions on the low side, but was never quite able to make the pass.
The Top 5 finishers included an impressive performance by Robby Gordon, Bowyer, Kenny Wallace, and Denny Hamlin. Blaney set a new Prelude track record with a 15.436-second clocking during qualifying.
It was a great night of dirt racing with a record number of NASCAR drivers, a record crowd, a huge HBO live TV audience and a record one million dollars raised for the Victory Junction Gang Camp