Edwards wins battle in the dirt with many top NASCAR stars in the field

Updated: June 7, 2007, 12:24 AM ET
Associated Press

ROSSBURG, Ohio -- Carl Edwards outran fellow NASCAR Nextel Cup stars Kyle Busch and Jeff Gordon on Wednesday night to win a charity race on a small dirt track owned by driver Tony Stewart.

Edwards won the third annual Nextel Prelude to the Dream at Eldora Speedway, a 53-year-old track carved out of farmland in western Ohio.

Dirt Track
Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images for Eldora SpeedwayNextel Cup regulars Kyle Busch, front, and Jeff Gordon, in his familiar looking No. 24 car, race at the Eldora Speedway in New Weston, Ohio on Wednesday night.

"It's just unreal," Edwards said, referring to how close the race was and how Gordon and Busch pressed him. "I've sweated out a lot of finishes in a dirt car when you can't see behind you. I knew they were right there on my tail though."

About 20,000 people jammed the small grandstand, surrounding stands and grassy hillsides to watch the spectacle.

Edwards started in the No. 2 position, quickly overtook Ken Schrader and held off the surging Gordon, and then Busch.

The event on the oval, high-bank track featured 26 drivers, each driving a 2,300-pound late-model stock car packing more than 800 horsepower.

Gordon, who finished third, took the lead on the 11th lap of the 30-lap race, but was almost immediately overtaken by Edwards, who never trailed again.

"I was right in the middle there, and Carl got back by me on the bottom," Gordon said. "I just lost a little bit of momentum there and just wasn't able to get it back."

Gordon raced at Eldora as a youth, but last ran on dirt in 1991.

"Eldora is one of those places you're always in awe of -- the first time you come here, no matter how many times you come here. There is no other track like it," Gordon said. "It's high-banked. It's fast. It's the Talladega of dirt. I take a lot of pride in the fact that I raced here as a kid growing up and the things I learned here."

It was the first time racing on dirt for stock car rookie Juan Pablo Montoya, the former Formula One driver who won the Indianapolis 500 in 2000.

He hit the wall during a qualifying heat, crumpling his front fender. His crew was able to repair the damage, but he had to start in the 25th spot.

"I picked up a lot of respect for the guys that run in dirt," said Montoya, who finished 15th. "It's very hard to appreciate how tough it is. It takes a lot."

Stewart was involved in an accident on the 17th lap when Bobby Labonte hit the wall, causing Stewart to hit the back of Kasey Kahne's car and then the wall. Stewart finished 22nd.

Other big names included Mark Martin, Matt Kenseth, Kevin Harvick and Bill Elliott.

Thousands of fans clogged the rural roadways around the small track and choked the entrances to see the race, which was broadcast live on HBO Pay-Per-View.

A sea of trailers, vans and buses camped in parking lots. People finished tailgating and packed up their lawn chairs as the race drew near.

Frank Graham, of Dayton, groused about how far away he had to park, but lightened up as he walked up to the entrance. Wearing a white T-shirt emblazoned with the name "Stewart," Graham said he was also excited to see Gordon and Montoya.

Graham said he was interested in seeing how the drivers would handle the dirt track.

"It handles completely different. They slide, they slide around the corners," he said. "They all think they can race, but you get up here and it kind of separates the men from the boys when they do this."

Bernie Wheeler, of Kettering, said he appreciates the history of the 50-year-old-plus track, which helped give rise to NASCAR.

"Isn't this how it all started years, and years and years ago? It was dirt tracks," he said.

For Graham's wife, Diane, it was a chance to see the drivers.

"It's the closest you get to real Cup trackers," she said. "That's why I come."

Eldora, known as The Big E, is about 40 miles north of Dayton. Stewart bought the speedway in 2004 from Earl Baltes, who built it in 1954.

Proceeds from the race go to the Tony Stewart Foundation and the Victory Junction Gang Camp in Randleman, N.C., which serves children ages 7 to 15 with life-threatening health issues. The camp was formed by NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series driver Kyle Petty and wife, Pattie, to honor the life of their late son, Adam.

"I feel so fortunate to have a facility and a lot of friends that are also supportive of Victory Junction," Stewart said. "It wasn't hard to put this event together from the standpoint of getting the drivers to come."

Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press