Here's something you don't see every day: Tony Stewart and some of his NEXTEL Cup buddies racing Late Models on Eldora Speedway's historic half-mile clay oval in a "just for fun" 25-lap race for charity.
The moment Stewart announced the event, the inaugural running of the NEXTEL Prelude to the Dream became one of the hottest dates on the motorsports calendar. In early May, within minutes of offering tickets for sale, Eldora's web site crashed due to the overwhelming response. When the track sold out, the $20 tickets were going for hundreds of dollars on eBay. What made this race so special?
The Prelude featured an all-star lineup of drivers from the NEXTEL Cup, Busch, NHRA and World of Outlaws series. Joining Stewart on the track he now owns were Matt Kenseth, Kyle Petty, Kevin Harvick, Ken Schrader, Bill Elliot, Bobby Labonte, Kenny Wallace, Dave Blaney, Mike Wallace, Jeff Green, Ron Capps, Red Farmer and Danny Lasoski.
Stewart was grateful for the drivers participating in his fundraiser to benefit the Victory Junction Gang Camp. "It's a big honor to me that these guys care enough about me to want to come to my race track and support what we're doing there. It just shows how good a group of friends they really are."
Racing Late Models at Eldora is a far cry from the tracks on the NASCAR circuit, but Stewart said his colleagues were up for the challenge. "I think all of them are excited. Matt Kenseth is one who hasn't raced on dirt a lot, but he's excited to do it. Then you've got my friend Kevin Harvick, who hasn't run on dirt but once, and he stuffed a Dirt Modified in the wall at Kenny Schrader's track. He's probably the guy I'm going to have the most fun watching because he's so nervous about it."
Harvick wasn't optimistic about a good finish. "But I'm always willing to try something," he said. "It'll be fun, and it will definitely be an experience for me."
In the first heat, Harvick's experience began badly when Kenny Wallace spun in Turn 1, causing a three-car pileup involving Harvick, Labonte and Elliot. The damage to Harvick's vehicle was so extensive that he had to switch to a different car for the feature race. Other Cup drivers also had their share of problems adjusting to Eldora's surface. Kenseth and Petty both hit the wall during their qualifying laps.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the evening was the performance of the legendary Red Farmer, who won the second heat and took the pole for the big race. "It was good," he said of holding off a challenge by Lasoski and Stewart. "I think I'm going to go kid Danny and Tony about it right now."
Before the feature race, nearly 20,000 fans enjoyed ceremonies that had the look and feel of a NASCAR event. The drivers stood in the back of pickup trucks and rode around the track for a parade lap. Matt Yocum, FOX Sports' pit reporter, introduced and interviewed the drivers, and 14 lucky fans chosen at random got to meet the stars onstage. Stewart also presented Petty with a check for $40,000 for the Victory Junction Gang Camp.
Former Eldora owner Earl Baltes gave the command to begin the race, providing an emotional moment that bridged Eldora's past and future.
Kenny Wallace, starting fourth, dove deep to the inside and took the lead from Red Farmer on the first lap. Stewart, starting sixth, was in second place by the end of the second lap.
Stewart kept the pressure on Wallace and was close to passing him until a caution on Lap 16 for Mike Wallace's blown engine halted the momentum. On the restart, Kenny got a jump on the rest of the cars and eventually cruised to the checkered flag in front of Stewart and Lasoski.
"Who woulda thunk, who woulda ever thunk?" Wallace said. "I thought I was seeing double out there, with two number 20's in my mirror. I'm so appreciative of everything, and I want to thank everyone for coming out."
Wallace donated his $10,000 first prize to Victory Junction. At the end of the evening, Stewart said he'd made a decision about whether or not the Prelude would be an annual event. "The people have spoken, and it will happen again."