It storms most of the night and into the next morning. The wind blows over barrels, and water gushes over the protective wall, rippling the silt. But the track holds. By the time the sun appears at midafternoon on race day, there isn't a puddle anywhere on the surface. The Old Spice Prelude to the Dream Presented by Sprint will go on.
Stewart arrives at Eldora at 2 pm, driving a big black SUV. He hasn't seen the track yet; he looks nervous. "I've got to haul ass," he says, and he bolts toward the garage.
At 6 pm, Stewart is still on the track, driving the sheep's foot roller, then the ATV, then the roller again. While the drivers draw lots for their time trials, Stewart runs the broken-down old pickup truck in circles, flattening the dirt one last time.
Finally, at 6:25, he swings the truck into the infield, jumps out, and immediately gets into the passenger seat of another truck, which takes him less than 200 yards to his trailer. Fifteen minutes after that, wearing his dark red Old Spice racing suit, he climbs into the cockpit of his racing car, puts on his helmet and gloves, and gets in line for his warm-up laps.
Stewart lost the first running of the Prelude in 2005 but won in 2006. He crashed out in 2007. Tonight, though, Smoke is golden. He finishes second in the time trials to Dave Blaney, then wins his qualifying heat by a substantial margin. Twenty-five cars make it to the main event. Stewart runs second in the opening lap, then rockets ahead, finding a spot that he'd supergrooved himself, just below the scoreboard. The race starts and stops a bunch of times. Each restart, Stewart whips ahead, knowing every eccentricity of every turn. By the time he rips through lap 25, it's obvious he's going to win, and his people start getting the trophy and ceremonial check ready.
Stewart pulls his car up the victory ramp, gives the engine a little rev, gets out, and raises his arms in victory. The crowd of 23,000, many of whom are wearing Stewart's bright orange NASCAR colors to indicate their support, goes crazy.
"Tony! Tony! Tony!" they chant.
Track employees pop open canisters of cheap plastic confetti. Stewart hoists the trophy, flanked by the winner and the runner-up of the Miss Eldora Speedway beauty pageant. He poses with the million-dollar charity check, beaming straight into the HBO pay-per-view cameras, letting the audience at home know that Tony Stewart cares about the people.
"Climb the fence!" the crowd chants. "Climb the fence! Climb the fence!"
This is Stewart's tradition when he wins.
He turns to his pit crew.
"Come on, you monkeys," he says. "Let's go do something fun."
They charge the fence, Stewart at the center, and clamber over, seemingly in one movement. Stewart again raises his arm in victory, and the crowd loves him. The next weekend, he'll be in the running to win the Pocono 500, but NASCAR will end up penalizing him for speeding during a pit stop, causing him to finish a disappointing 35th. Tonight, though, Tony Stewart is the coolest motherfucker to ever set foot in Darke County, Ohio.
"Hey, Tony," I shout. "How'd the track feel tonight?"
"Eh," Stewart says. "A little choppy."