After Dover, NASCAR To Head Down Dirt Road

By Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 2, 2007

DOVER, Del., June 1 -- Tony Stewart opened the 2007 NASCAR season by finishing dead last in the Daytona 500. He led the most laps at Bristol Motor Speedway in March only to finish 35th. He was poised to take the spoils in last weekend's Coca-Cola 600 but had to surrender the lead for a final splash of gas.

Given Stewart's reputation as stock-car racing's moodiest driver, combined with the fact that he hasn't won a race all year, there was reason to brace for an ill wind when the two-time NASCAR champion swept into the infield media center at Dover International Speedway Friday morning. But Stewart was all smiles -- chatty, charming and scarcely able to quit talking about his first love: dirt.

Short-track racing on dirt, to be precise. The sort of grass-roots racing that old-school racers were weaned on in small towns around the South and Midwest. The sort of racing that barely pays enough to bang out the dents and won't make the winner famous anywhere but his own home town.

Stewart is going back to that form of racing Wednesday night at Eldora Speedway, a half-mile dirt track in Rossburg, Ohio, that he bought from legendary promoter Earl Baltes in 2004. And he has convinced 18 of NASCAR's biggest names -- including four-time champion Jeff Gordon, 2004 rookie of the year Kasey Kahne and Colombia's Juan Pablo Montoya -- to strap in, too, for the so-called "Prelude to the Chase."

The 30-lap sprint offers some of the sport's biggest names a chance to race for the sheer thrill of it, in dirt-track modifieds that they don't have to worry about tearing up, in front of a crowd about one-tenth the size of a major NASCAR race. Eldora's grandstands seat about 16,000, and a few thousand more can squeeze on the hillside that overlooks Turns 1 and 2. HBO will offer a live broadcast on pay-per-view, as well.

"It's an opportunity to bring them back to simpler times when racing was a little less complicated than what it is now," said Stewart, 36, who raced at Eldora as an open-wheel phenom roughly 20 years ago. Convincing his rivals to join him was easy, he said. All he did was explain that proceeds benefit the Victory Junction Gang Camp for children with chronic illness and disease, founded by Kyle and Pattie Petty in honor of their son Adam, a promising racer who was killed in a crash in 2000.

Given the egos and résumés involved, no one's apt to waltz off with the trophy. Among the entrants with dirt-racing backgrounds are Stewart, Gordon (who last raced at Eldora in 1991), Kahne, Ken Schrader, Kyle and Kurt Busch and Dave Blaney. It will be an alien surface for Montoya, but he has unique incentive: a shot at becoming the only racecar driver to have won a Formula One race in Monte Carlo; the Indianapolis 500; and a short-track race on dirt in western Ohio.

Said Denny Hamlin, Stewart's teammate at Joe Gibbs Racing: "If you put us out on a little go-kart track, then we're going to be trying as hard as we can to beat each other. . . . If you take us out of our environment and then see who is best, I think the winner is going to take more pride than they do here."

Still, there was plenty of pride at stake Friday as NASCAR drivers qualified for Sunday's Nextel Cup race, the Autism Speaks 400 (the sport's first race sponsored by a nonprofit), on the steep, concrete banks of Dover, a one-mile oval that puts a premium on handling.

Sunday's race will be the first at Dover using NASCAR's new, winged Car of Tomorrow. And few knew what to expect when they unloaded their racecars because the track's sole test session, scheduled in May, was rained out.

Ryan Newman delivered Dodge's second pole in two weeks, lapping the track at 152.925 mph. Dale Earnhardt Jr. was delighted with his fast lap (152.387 mph), which locked in his first front-row starting spot this season. Michael Waltrip was so emotionally spent after earning a spot in the race (he'll line up 23rd) that he was trembling after climbing from his car. Waltrip has had a miserable maiden campaign as owner-driver of Toyota's flagship team, having failed to qualify for 11 consecutive races.

"We work so hard, and we understand the challenge, and we knew something good would happen eventually," Waltrip said.

Earnhardt Jr. praised the work of the engine shop at Dale Earnhardt Inc., the team he's leaving at season's end. Asked about the progress of his search for a new race team, he said that he and his sister, business manager Kelley Earnhardt Elledge, had focused their interest on a handful of teams -- all of them Chevrolet teams. Elledge has indicated those teams are Richard Childress Racing, Joe Gibbs Racing and Ginn Motorsports.

Visiting other teams' race shops has been eye-opening on two levels, he said. He didn't find as much variation as he expected in terms of the equipment, machinery and resources, saying: "I didn't see any golden eggs laying around." The telling difference, he concluded, was the intangibles -- the teamwork and expertise that lurked behind the various shop doors.

"I don't particularly want to be in this situation," Earnhardt Jr. said, "but I'm trying to make it as positive a learning experience as I can."

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