Dreaming of dirt

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Even though his injured right shoulder will prevent him from taking part in the main event, Tony Stewart is throwing a big party Wednesday night and a bunch of his Nextel Cup buddies are invited.

The second-annual Nextel Prelude to the Dream takes place at Stewart's Eldora Speedway in Ohio, considered by many to be one of the premier half-mile dirt tracks in the country.

Last year's event featured practice, qualifying, two preliminary heat races and a 25-lap main event, all of which featured many NASCAR drivers mixing it up on the dirt track.

Cup drivers expected to compete include Mark Martin, Ryan Newman, Kurt Busch, Bobby Labonte, Elliott Sadler, Matt Kenseth, Mike Wallace, Jamie McMurray, Robby Gordon, Carl Edwards, J.J. Yeley, Kyle Petty, Kevin Harvick, Dave Blaney, Ken Schrader, Denny Hamlin and the winner of last year's inaugural Prelude, Kenny Wallace.

"I wanted it to feel like that it wasn't an appearance that they were going to do, that it was an event that they could go to and relax and drive race cars and have a great time," Stewart said. "So hopefully that's what we're going to accomplish out of this."

Non-Cup drivers in the field include ageless racer and Stewart friend Red Farmer (now a reported 78 years old), NHRA drag racer Ron Capps and Craftsman Truck Series driver Aric Almirola.

Also expected to be in attendance but not competing are Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Greg Biffle.

"We'll make sure they get to do whatever they want to do and have a good time," Stewart said. "If Junior wants to run the bar, then he can run the bar. If he wants to drive the pace car, then he can drive the pace car or be the flagman or whatever they want to do."

Stewart will be eating his heart out from the sidelines, unable to compete because he is recovering from a fractured scapula between his right shoulder and ribs suffered at Charlotte a week and a half ago.

"On the bright side, I still get to watch some of my good friends test their luck on the dirt and will have more time to interact with our fans," he said

Former Cup champ Bill Elliott, who was a surprise, last-minute addition to last year's field, may also appear. But four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon, who originally had planned to attend, was unable to reschedule a prior commitment. Fans surely had hoped to see Gordon race against Stewart on dirt, which is where both of them made their marks early in their racing careers. It would have been the first-ever dirt match-up between the pair.

Still, there are so many Cup drivers flying in for the event that a small local airstrip near the race track had to devise a special plan to accommodate parking of all the private planes that will land there, as well as stagger takeoff and landing times.

An estimated 15,000 fans are expected to attend the nearly sold-out event, located about one hour northwest of Dayton. The event serves as a fundraiser for several charities, including Petty's Victory Junction Gang Camp.

"I'm hoping this is something these guys look at as first a great opportunity for us to raise a lot of money for Victory Junction Gang Camp and for all of us to get together in a setting where we get to be competitive but we're not worried about points," Stewart said.

While it may only be an exhibition and is supposed to be a fun night for Stewart and his racing cohorts, several drivers are taking their involvement seriously.

Most notable are Harvick and Kenny Wallace.

Harvick was so disappointed in how he finished in last year's race (12th of 14 drivers) that he went to a special dirt track school recently to prepare for Wednesday's race. He also was to undergo a refresher course Wednesday morning before flying to Eldora.

Even though he began his racing career on short tracks in and around his native Bakersfield, Calif., last year's race at Eldora was the first time Harvick had ever competed on dirt.

"I intend on being better prepared this year," Harvick said.

And then there's Wallace, who beat Stewart and sprint car ace Danny Lasoski to the finish line in last year's race.

"I'm coming back to win again," Wallace said after last year's event. "I had so much fun doing this that I want more. It's not every day I can say I whipped Tony Stewart's butt in a race."

While Wallace won't have the opportunity to get a rematch from Stewart, he'll have plenty of competition from others – and a chance to be King of Eldora for one night for a second straight year.

"[Wallace] pretty much reminds me [he won at Eldora] every time I see him, but that's what made the Prelude so fun," Stewart said. "It was an event that everybody who was there got a chance to kind of go back in time and remember what it was like to be a Saturday night racer.

"We get to laugh at each other's mistakes and have fun with it. I think that's what's going to make this event so much fun for everybody."