Here's the hook: a roster of top stars from NASCAR Sprint Cup racing and other speed sports driving the wheels off 800-horsepower dirt late model stock cars all for the pride of winning a race.

Now, here's the purpose: to raise money for military-themed charities in an era where American troops are still in harm's way in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Tony Stewart's Prelude to the Dream, which will celebrate its fifth running Wednesday night, is an event that has grown exponentially in stature since its inception in 2005, both in its ability to attract the best stock car drivers in the world and in its ability to raise money for charity.

The 2009 Prelude at Rossburg Ohio's Eldora Speedway, which Stewart owns, will feature 26 drivers, including Stewart, Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards and Jimmie Johnson, to name a few. From the results of the previous four years, it might appear the track owner has a home field advantage - Stewart won the event in 2006 and 2008 and finished second to Kenny Wallace in the inaugural event in 2005. Edwards won the 2007 Prelude, the first time the event was carried live on HBO Pay-Per-View.

Stewart says, weather permitting, he'd like to have the dirt surface at the high-banked, half-mile track hard and slick for the Prelude. The attributes slow speeds down and deprive drivers with a dirt-track background of some of the inherent advantage they might otherwise have.

"It gives guys who aren't quite as comfortable running those cars at that track a little bit of a reprieve, because they're not having to run a second-and-a-half or two seconds quicker when the track's got a lot of grip in it, but a lot of that's dictated by Mother Nature," he noted, "But we do everything we can to make it like that every year, to where it cleans off and gets slick to where it slows down the pace enough to where guys don't have to run faster than they're comfortable running."

Over the past four years, the Prelude has raised more than $2 million for charity, with the lion's share going to Victory Junction Gang Camp, founded by Kyle and Pattie Petty. With the US Army sponsoring team-mate Ryan Newman's #39 Chevrolet at Stewart-Haas Racing this year, Stewart has chosen Wounded Warrior Project, Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund, Operation Homefront and Fisher House as the beneficiaries of this year's pay-per-view proceeds.

Drivers who have committed to the 2009 event include Stewart, Newman, Busch, Gordon, Johnson, Edwards, Kevin Harvick, Kasey Kahne, Matt Kenseth, Denny Hamlin, Clint Bowyer, Brian Vickers, 2008 runner-up Robby Gordon, David Reutimann, Bill Elliott, Dave Blaney, Aric Almirola, Wallace, Ken Schrader, Ron Capps, Cruz Pedregon, Ray Evernham, Joey Logano, Red Farmer, David Stremme and Casey Mears.

by Reid Spencer
Sporting News NASCAR Wire Service