Every sport has its rendition of an all-star event. For NASCAR, that event is the All-Star Race in Charlotte, NC, in mid-May. It's a chance to go out and race not for points, but for bragging rights.
About a month after the All-Star race, many of those same drivers come to Rossburg, Ohio, to also race for bragging rights, but not in a Sprint Cup car.
For one night, many of the premier drivers in NASCAR go back to their roots, and go racing on the dirt.
Wednesday night, 23 drivers took center stage as they competed in the fifth annual "Prelude to the Dream" late model race at Eldora Speedway.
This event was set to take place in mid-June, just prior to the Sprint Cup race in Pocono, however heavy rain caused the event to be postponed. When the teams and fans returned, they were met with a beautiful sunny evening that was perfect for a classic dirt-track shootout.
Qualifying was the first order of business as right away it became evident that the top groove, right along the cushion was the fast way around the speedway. The third car on track, Denny Hamlin, set the pace early with a blistering lap of 15.664 seconds. Many of the cars that followed came close, but none could quite top that lap.
Then came Tony Stewart, the owner of Eldora Speedway. As soon as he took the green flag, he never lifted the throttle, driving the track as if he was running Darlington. His first lap put him on the pole, but his second lap of 15.405 seconds assured him the top spot.
The top ten qualifiers each had sub-16 second runs, meaning the track was fast and would make for an exciting evening.
The heat races were next on the bill. The top four drivers from each heat got the front positions in the 30-lap feature.
Each heat was first set from qualifying, as the top three drivers earned the provisional pole for their respective heats. However, to make things interesting, the front four cars were inverted.
The first heat of the evening saw pole winner Stewart start from the fourth position, while Jimmie Johnson and Robby Gordon led the field to the green flag. Right at the drop of the green, Johnson got the high groove from Gordon, as he scraped the wall out of the second corner.
The field was slowed quickly as the first caution of the night came on lap three as Marcos Ambrose slid up into the wall. Caution laps on this night did not count, so the field would restart with eight laps remaining.
Right away, Johnson was able to hold off Stewart for the lead, while Gordon and Kyle Busch battled for the third spot. Stewart, try as he might, could not catch Johnson as he took the win in the first heat.
The second heat saw Matt Kenseth and Kasey Kahne lead the field to the green. Right away, Kahne got the jump on the high side and bolted out front. His car was hooking in the corners as he had a straightaway lead only three laps into the heat. His lead would shrink as the caution came out on lap seven for debris on the race track.
The pieces were cleaned up and the field quickly went back to green, but Kahne shot out like a rocket in his No. 9 car and didn't look back. Kahne took the win as Kenseth, Hamlin and Kenny Wallace rounded out the transfer positions.
The final heat race of the night had Joey Logano, making his first ever appearance on dirt, and Aric Almirola leading the charge. Almirola jumped out ahead of Logano at the drop of the green as the No. 20 scraped the outside wall right on the first lap.
It would get worse from there for Logano. Three laps later he scraped the wall again, knocking off the entire rear deck lid and spoiler, which then sent him spinning backwards into the third turn wall.
The rear of the car was destroyed, thus seemingly ending the night for Logano.
After extensive cleanup, the field restarted with Clint Bowyer leading, but right on the restart he spun loose, giving Almirola an opening and the lead. Almirola would hold on and win the third heat in his No. 8 Vault Chevrolet.
During the intermission, it was discovered that Hamlin's car had broken a push rod in the engine. The crew thrashed to see if it could be fixed, but the damage was done as debris was throughout the engine block, thus ending Hamlin's night.
Meanwhile, Logano was given a second opportunity to race in the main event. Stewart got out his back-up car for Logano to use. With the change, Logano would start in the rear of the field.
It was finally time to see the entire field of drivers take the Eldora Speedway by storm, as the 30-lap main event was set to go green. Clint Bowyer and Kenny Wallace would start out front, while Johnson, Kahne and Almirola would be mid-pack.
Right away when the green flag fell, three cars got into the outside wall in the second corner. Soon after, the caution flew as A.J. Allmendinger stopped on track with right-front damage to his car.
Because the lap wasn't completed, the field restarted double-file, and it was Wallace getting the jump on Bowyer from the outside lane. Behind the leaders, Brian Vickers spun his No. 83 Red Bull Toyota out, but kept going.
On lap three, the caution came out again as Ray Evernham lost the front steering on his No. 98 car after contact with the outside wall.
On the ensuing restart, Wallace got a great jump. He would pull to a half-second lead as it was Stewart, Bowyer and Kyle Busch battling for second. That battle soon became a battle for the lead as they all caught Wallace.
On lap 12, Stewart was running fourth as Busch made a move for second in turn three. Bowyer went low to cut him off, but slowed both cars down and Stewart jumped to second out of turn four.
Suddenly, Stewart dove hard to the bottom and did a slide job on Wallace to take the lead, his first of the night.
Soon after the pass, the third caution flag of the evening flew. Gordon and Ken Schrader spun out in the third turn. Schrader kept going, but Logano couldn't slow up in time and ran into Gordon. Ambrose and NHRA driver Ron Capps also spun out to avoid colliding with both cars.
The field got the restart on lap 14, and Stewart jumped on the throttle quickly and pulled out in a hurry. Four laps after the restart, he had a straightaway lead on second and third-place running Wallace and Ryan Newman.
The final caution flag of the evening came out with ten laps left as Casey Mears got loose as Stewart was putting him a lap down, giving Wallace and Bowyer one final opportunity to make the run to pass Stewart.
On the restart, Stewart got a great jump while Wallace spun his tires. Bowyer got into the back of Wallace, who got the worst end of it with a flat tire. Stewart would again pull to a straightaway lead after only two laps.
Without a doubt, on this night, Stewart would be the leader of the one everyone was chasing, but no one would catch. For the third time in a four-year span, Stewart would take the checkered flag at the track he owns, winning the Prelude to the Dream.
In victory lane, Stewart discussed the pass he made to get the lead from Wallace.
"We got very, very lucky that Clint and Kyle went to the bottom at the same time on the same corner, and were able to run around the top pretty hard and catch Kenny," Stewart said.
There was no question that Stewart was the car to beat. From qualifying, to the heats, to the feature, he was the one that all had to focus on beating. There was no doubt on this night, "Smoke" was the king of the dirt.
RESULTS: 1-Stewart, 2-Bowyer, 3-Busch, 4-Newman, 5-Kenseth, 6-Pedregon, 7-Reutimann, 8-Almirola, 9-Kahne, 10-Johnson, 11-Harvick, 12-Vickers, 13-Capps, 14-Ambrose, 15-Mears (-1), 16-Farmer (-3), 17-Wallace (OFF), 18-R. Gordon (OUT), 19-Schrader (OUT), 20-Logano (OUT), 21-Evernham (OUT), 22-Allmendinger (OUT), 23-Hamlin (DNS)
CAUTIONS: 4 (Lap 1-Allmendinger, accident turn 3; Lap 3-Evernham, accident turn 3; Lap 13-Schrader, Gordon, Logano, Mears and Ambrose, accident turn 3; Lap 20-Mears, spin turn 2)
LEAD CHANGES: 2 among 2 drivers
LAP LEADERS: Wallace 1-12, Stewart 13-30
-Four drivers were unable to attend the race: Carl Edwards (broken foot), Bill Elliott (cracked ribs), Dave Blaney (family) and Jeff Gordon (schedule conflict). Gordon's car was in the pits, but was not taken off the trailer.
-Five drivers made their first start on dirt. Joey Logano, Marcos Ambrose, David Reutimann, A.J. Allmendinger and Casey Mears.
-Proceeds from the race benefit four charities dedicated to helping wounded American service men and women. They are Operation Homefront, Fisher House, Intreped Fallen Heroes Fund and Wounded Warrior Project.