Respect. That’s what Jimmie Johnson earned last year with his wire-to-wire win in the Prelude to the Dream, Tony Stewart’s annual star-studded charity race at Eldora Speedway in Rossburg, Ohio.
Johnson will defend his victory in Wednesday’s Prelude, the seventh since Stewart launched the charity race in 2005. The event will be televised live on HBO Pay-Per-View at 8 p.m. ET.
With plenty of off-road experience early in his racing career, but little track time in the dirt Late Model he drove at Stewart’s half-mile track, Johnson nevertheless joined his host as the only other driver to lead all 30 laps in the main event. Stewart accomplished the feat in 2008 and is the only three-time winner of the event. Stewart also holds the Prelude qualifying record (15.405 seconds, 116.845 mph).
Last year’s victory gave Johnson bragging rights for a year, but just as important to the five-time defending Sprint Cup champion is the chance to socialize with his peers in a relaxed atmosphere, something that rarely happens at the big tracks on the Cup tour.
“We all enjoy racing, and I think running in Tony’s event without the pressure, without the bright lights and all that goes on at a normal Cup event, we’re able to really unwind – especially postrace – and just sit there and hang out,” Johnson said. “I think the earliest I’ve ever left is probably 2 or 3 in the morning after the race, just to go to the airplane and get home at sunrise.
“It’s just from sitting around and shooting the breeze with the guys and talking racing and hanging out and spending time with these other drivers that you really don’t ever get a chance to. I joked with (Tony) over the years that he needs to build like a little makeshift bar in the infield and make the winner of that night’s event buy beer for everybody – and pizza.”
There’s a purpose to the Prelude that goes beyond socializing. Proceeds from this year’s event will support four children’s hospitals: Levine Children’s Hospital in Charlotte; Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta; St. Louis Children’s Hospital; and Children’s Medical Center in Dallas.
NASCAR stars will team with drivers from other disciplines to compete for their charities. Each hospital is represented by a team of drivers, with 30 percent of the proceeds going to the winning team’s charity, 25 percent to the runnerup, 20 percent each to the third- and fourth-place finishers and five percent to administrative expenses.
Driving a car owned by dirt-track ace Clint Bowyer, Johnson led Team Levine to the win last year.
The 2011 Prelude lineup:
Team Levine: Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin, Bill Elliott, David Reutimann, Austin Dillon, Ray Evernham and Cruz Pedregon.
Team Atlanta: Ryan Newman, Carl Edwards, Clint Bowyer, Ken Schrader, Jason Leffler, David Gilliland and Ron Capps.
Team St. Louis: Kyle Busch, Kasey Kahne, Bobby Labonte, Justin Allgaier, Kenny Wallace, Ron Hornaday Jr. and Ricky Carmichael.
Team Dallas: Tony Stewart, Tony Kanaan, Matt Kenseth, Brian Vickers, Marcos Ambrose, Aric Almirola and J.J. Yeley.