NASCAR

Dreams come true on Eldora's dirt

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Lee Spencer

Lee Spencer is the Senior NASCAR Writer for FOXSports.com. She has provided award-winning coverage of auto racing over the last 15 years. Spencer has lent her expertise to both television and radio and is a regular contributor to SiriusXM Radio and the Performance Racing Network. Follow her on Twitter.

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ROSSBURG, Ohio

Tony Stewart may have created the best racing fans have witnessed in the last decade.

And what makes the Prelude to the Dream even sweeter — it was all in the name of charity — and fun.

Hosted at the historic Eldora Speedway, the Prelude to the Dream not only benefits the Tony Stewart Foundation, a large portion of the money that was raised at the gate and through the HBO Pay-Per-View presentation will help send hundreds of children with special medical needs to the Victory Junction Camp. And for both the children and their families, that opportunity is priceless.

The Big E experience is magical. Gone is the pressure and stress of NASCAR, replaced by the presence of true racing passion. A passion that fathers Bobby Labonte, Matt Kenseth and Bill Elliott could share with their sons. Or Mike Wallace could share with his daughter Chrissy -- a racer in her own right and the first woman to win a feature in Hickory Motor Speedway's 57 years. She is currently fifth in points at HMS.

The Dream roster ran the gamut of age and experience. Champions from stock car, open wheel and drag racing alongside aspiring NASCAR star Aric Almirola and 70-something Red Farmer — one of the founding fathers of the Alabama Gang — who reiterated the theme that "we're here to race for the kids, not to put food on the table".

Other than bragging rights, there's nothing to be lost or gained by the racing at Eldora. That's why 23,000 fans packed the facility on a Wednesday night.

For Bobby Labonte, who began racing on dirt just three years ago and now operates his own Dirt Late Model team for Earl Pearson, topping time trials was a sense of personal satisfaction.

"I told the (crew) guys to go get a time sheet so I could frame it," Labonte said, with a hint of a smile. "It might never happen again. It was pretty cool."

In a car prepared by fellow Batesville, Ark. native Billy Moyer, Mark Martin's lap was second quickest. Martin was nearly giddy.

"If nothing else good happens the rest of the night," Martin said. "I can take pride in my qualifying effort."

The camaraderie between the drivers was apparent as the more experienced dirt veterans shared tips within the racing fraternity. Kenny Schrader buzzed around like an expectant father offering advice to several competitors — even fellow St. Louisan Kenny Wallace, who won the first Prelude to the Dream in 2005.

"You were way too throttle happy," Schrader explained to Wallace after qualifying. Wallace processed the information as Martin shared in the conversation.

"Schrader's my mentor," Wallace said. "I told him to be honest with me — and he is. This is more seat of your pants racing than NASCAR. But you have to have the talent and you have to have traction and you have to have the car. That's how I won the first Dream. I had an awesome car."

The three heat races separated the men from boys pretty quickly. It was obvious in the first heat that racers could hold the throttle wide freaking open and let the chips — or Dirt Late Models — fall where they may.

In Bill Elliott's case, that's precisely what happened. In the closing lap of the first heat, Elliott and Ryan Newman were battling for fourth place (what should have been the transfer spot) and the pair locked up coming off of Turn Four. Newman's car began to launch and catapulted Elliott's car -- wheels skidding up against the wall at the start-finish line -- until it finally flipped over before Turn 1.

After track workers rolled over what was left of Elliott's car right side up, the former Cup champ jumped on the top of the roof to the fans delight

"It was no big deal," Elliott said. "I figured I'd do something spectacular like Burt Reynolds in 'Stroker Ace'. I had a great time."

Clint Bowyer spanked the field in the first heat. The dirt track ace — who has a go-kart track in his backyard — had nearly a third of a lap advantage over second-place Schrader, a master of all racing. Jeff Gordon, who led Hot Laps (practice), finished third followed by a sideways Newman.

"The track is black from top to bottom," Bowyer said. "You have to drive the car real easy. Finesse is everything.

"This is what I grew up on. It's important for me to come here and run good."

Montoya finished last in the heat, but many drivers were interested in how he would handle his dirt debut. Labonte described Montoya's effort as "awesome".

The second heat was fairly uneventful. Kyle Busch had the dominant run, followed by Almirola, Carl Edwards and Martin. The crowd was appreciative of Busch's performance. Busch, 22, started his dirt career at 13 but it didn't last long.

"I ran IMCA modifieds but got kicked out," Busch laughed. "You had to be 16 to race and everyone found out I was only 15."

With owner Stewart, in the third heat the sparks flew early. Although J.J. Yeley started on the pole position, Smoke took him and Kasey Kahne three wide into Turn 1 on the first lap.

"It was a free for all," Yeley said. "I didn't get a good start. I was watching Kasey and that opened the inside lane for Tony."

Kahne won the heat followed by Stewart, Labonte and Yeley.

Kenseth and Denny Hamlin battled their guts out in the Prelude Consolation race, but in a strange turn of events, all the drivers from the B Main qualified for the Prelude Feature.

With the field inverted, Schrader started on the pole alongside his kin Carl Edwards, who had observed the third heat carefully from on top of the concession stand. His studying would pay off.

Just past halfway, Stewart tangled with Labonte and Kahne in Turn 2 and the Nos. 20 and 43 were toast. Despite challenges from Gordon, who was making his first return to Eldora in 16 years, and Busch, Edwards led all but two laps for his first Prelude trophy and topped off the evening with his signature backflip.

"That's just unreal," Edwards said. "I've sweated out a lot of finishes in a dirt car when you can't see behind you. I knew they were right there on my tail. To win this race in from of so many folks is unreal. Everyone I know is watching it at home on HBO. They have people who bought it, and they are all going over to their house. I'm sure everyone enjoyed it. I can't tell you how much it means to me to be able to support the Victory Junction Gang Camp and doing something this fun. It's awesome.

"When Jeff (Gordon) got by me the first time I thought, dang, this isn't good. And then he slipped up a little bit and I got back by him and I thought this is fun. When it happened again and again I just couldn't believe it. That's really cool to get to race Jeff Gordon on dry, slick dirt track like this. I was definitely amazed at Kyle Busch and Jeff Gordon. It's unreal to see how talented these guys are on dirt. It's neat to come out here and do something where everyone is on an even playing field and see how it turns out."

Busch, Gordon, Schrader and Bowyer rounded out the top five in what has to go on record as one of the most competitive 30-lap races ever run on dirt.

"I'm so honored that these guys came," said Stewart, the defending champ who was scored 22nd. "It makes that five-and-a-half hours that I spent on the tractor seem like nothing now. These guys — it showcases their talent and shows how they got to the Nextel Cup level and just really appreciative of all these drivers and HBO and Nextel and Old Spice for putting all of this together and making it such a big event.

"It's not me. It's not any one person. There are so many people that have been working on this — not for weeks, but for months to get this all put together and get the logistics of it. Then when I got the time in my schedule I got the time to put my hands in it yesterday when I had a free day. There's so much stuff that happened to get ready for this that I have no concept of and I have no idea how hard and how much time it took to do. It just turned out to be a perfect night."

It was an absolutely perfect night where racers simply raced with no interruptions or manipulations. In the years to come, the Prelude to the Dream could be the most coveted ticket in all of motorsports. It's certainly the most fun anyone can have in 60 laps.

Tagged: Jeff Gordon, Matt Kenseth, Ryan Newman, Bill Elliott, Kasey Kahne, Tony Stewart, Bobby Labonte, Mike Wallace, Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Aric Almirola, Mark Martin, Kenny Wallace

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