Dirt charity race gives NASCAR drivers a break

ROSSBURG, Ohio (AP) a€" For Tony Stewart and his fellow NASCAR drivers, ita€™s a welcome break from the pressure of pursuing a championship.

The drivers battle each other Wednesday night in Stewarta€™s annual charity race, a dirt-track affair at Eldora Speedway called the Gillette Young Guns Prelude to the Dream. Twenty-two drivers in late-model stock cars will compete in the 30-lap contest.

a€œI know therea€™s a lot of pressure, but at the same time this is something thata€™s a release for these guys,a€ said Stewart, NASCARa€™s Sprint Cup points leader. a€œIta€™s a nice diversion from getting ready for this weekend.a€

The race falls three days before the Chevy Rock & Roll 400 at Richmond (Va.) International Raceway, where 11 drivers are vying for the remaining eight spots in the 12-driver Chase for the Championship. Only four drivers have clinched spots: Stewart, Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin.

Of the 11 drivers who havena€™t clinched spots, six are competing in the charity race a€" Kasey Kahne, Ryan Newman, Matt Kenseth, Brian Vickers, Kyle Busch and David Reutimann. Stewart, Johnson and Hamlin are also in the race.

There are no points to be won in the charity race, only bragging rights.

a€œIt should be fun,a€ Busch said. a€œYou dona€™t have points. You dona€™t have money. You dona€™t have anything on the line. Youa€™re just racing for a good cause.a€

Johnson said the race is exciting and has an invigorating effect on drivers because they are outside of their element a€" racing on dirt instead of asphalt and competing against some drivers they dona€™t know.

a€œThe impact will be a lot of guys showing up at Richmond with a smile on their face,a€ Johnson said.

Drivers have said the contest on Stewarta€™s half-mile, high-banked oval track carved out of farmland takes them back to their roots, when they drove in local, short-track weekend races.

On dirt, drivers must steer right for the car to go left. Going through turns, the front left tire comes off the track and the left rear tire provides traction. And the short 30-lap race gives drivers precious little time to make their moves.

Johnson said the key is getting a good qualifying spot, within the first few rows.

a€œTherea€™s not a lot of laps to make up positions,a€ he said.

Busch said it also helps to have a good car.

a€œYoua€™ve got to be smart. You got to work your way up through traffic pretty quick because you dona€™t have much time,a€ he said. a€œAnd youa€™ve got to get the throttle down, especially on dirt.a€

The cars weigh about 2,300 pounds, supply 800-plus horsepower and, at Eldora, reach top speeds of about 150 mph. The vehicles have two-speed transmissions and no windshields a€" only short plastic shields to protect drivers from rocks.

Stewart won the race last year, grabbing the lead in the first lap and leading the rest of the way. He also won in 2006. Carl Edwards won in 2007, and Kenny Wallace in 2005.

Stewart doesna€™t believe the NASCAR drivers will ease up a little, given the importance of the upcoming race in Richmond.

a€œRacers are racers, man,a€ he said. a€œYou dona€™t get to this level by being conservative all the time.a€

This yeara€™s race was originally scheduled for June 3, but was rained out.

Proceeds from the race will go to groups whose missions are to assist the families of soldiers who have died serving their country and to severely injured military personnel a€" Wounded Warrior Project, Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund, Operation Homefront and Fisher House.

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