Nelson Stewart remembers the first time he witnessed the wonder that is Eldora Speedway.
The year was 1956. He could drive his ’48 Chevrolet Coupe to the “terrace” between Turns 3 and 4 where 16 newly constructed suites now sit.
He remembers watching Johnny Rutherford flip over the wall in Turn 2 with “both arms out of the cage.” He watched A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti and the Unsers run on the half-mile dirt track, which graduates to 24 degrees in the corners.
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And on Wednesday night, Stewart witnessed his son Tony win his third Gillette Young Guns Prelude to the Dream.
All the elder Stewart could say was, “Yes!” considering the years of racing memories and that his son decided to purchase the track from Earl Baltes in 2004.
It was also no surprise that Nelson Stewart was perched atop the concrete block concession facing Turn 1 — the highest vantage point in the infield. From the hot laps to the start of qualifying, throughout the three heat races and again for the main event, Stewart had a smile that never faltered.
“You wouldn’t believe what I’ve seen here,” Nelson Stewart said with a smile.
But that’s the very reason everyone comes back. Even after the original event was postponed from June 3, drivers returned to the Big E to score bragging rights for the Prelude.
“The first time I came here, I was scared,” Tony Stewart said following his victory celebration. “Look, we’re going 15.5 seconds around here in a dirt late model. It’s just awesome to see how fast this place is.
“The thing that impresses me the most is how much the drivers continue to improve year after year. This is not an easy place to get around for these guys that only see this place once a year. It shows you so much why these guys are at the Cup level.”
Stewart’s event not only provided a welcome respite for the regulars on the NASCAR tour, the Prelude benefitted Wounded Warrior Project (www.WoundedWarriorProject.org), Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund (www.FallenHeroesFund.org), Operation Homefront (www.OperationHomefront.net) and Fisher House (www.FisherHouse.org).
“The amount of money we’ve been able to raise is incredible,” Stewart said. “I hope we can reach the million-dollar mark again tonight.”
Many of Stewart’s guests/competitors congratulated him in Victory Lane before leaving the track.
“You don’t see this any place else but Eldora,” remarked the elder Stewart. “Before the guys leave, they always ask, ‘Can we come back?'”
Best in show
Clint Bowyer had the pole for the main event, but Kenny Wallace led the first 12 laps. It wasn’t until Bowyer knocked Wallace out of the way on the Lap 21 restart that he could attempt to chase Stewart.
“I didn’t mean it,” Bowyer said. “Kenny spun his tires on his restart and kind of came across my nose. I tried to miss it, but he was already spinning. That’s the thing about these cars. You break traction, and you can’t get it back.
“But it was fun. The cushion, that’s dirt racing. You never know what you’re going to have. Some nights it’s on top. Some nights it’s on the bottom. Some night you’ve got both. It was certainly on the top tonight.”
Stewart led the final 18 laps and finished 3.358 seconds ahead of Bowyer’s golden Cheerios car — a paint scheme the team spent the last two months trying to keep secret.
Kasey Kahne’s experience racing in five different classes at Eldora paid off in the second heat.
Kahne had extended his lead by nearly one-third of the track before beating Matt Kenseth to the line.
“I drove it as hard as I could,” Kahne said of his Scott Bloomquist-prepared car.
Kahne started the main event eighth but finished ninth.
Jimmie Johnson topped the first heat from the pole in his second start at Eldora. What did he do to prepare?
“Not a damn thing,” Johnson said. “I just came again. In first practice, I was terrible. I felt better in second practice.
“I was scared to death (in the first heat race) that Tony was going to get me, so I ran as hard as I could.”
Johnson finished the Prelude 10th, but his father Gary said winning the heat races was “as good as winning Darlington.”
Seen in the garage
NASCAR legend Leonard Wood took in the festivities from the top of Tony Stewart’s hauler.
Stewart feted his sponsor Johnny Morris, owner of Bass Pro Shops, with the Prelude trophy. Morris & Co. then proceeded to take a celebratory lap at a sporty speed around the track.
Johnson and Ryan Newman carried T-shirt cannons resembling Gillette razors on the parade laps.