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CUP: Johnson Ready To Be Down And Dirty

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The hottest driver in NASCAR gets to go play in the dirt with his pals Wednesday night.

Jimmie Johnson, who in the past four weeks has won the Sprint All-Star Race, the Bojangles’ Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway and most recently the FedEx 400 benefiting Autism Speaks, is heading to Rossburg, Ohio, to compete in Wednesday night’s Prelude to the Dream dirt late model race at Eldora Speedway.

Johnson is part of an impressive roster of champions that includes racers from a number of top series, including the IZOD IndyCar Series, the National Hot Rod Association, the World of Outlaws and, of course, NASCAR. The drivers, assembled by track owner and three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart, are there to try to raise $1 million for Feed The Children, this year’s charity.

Although Johnson grew up racing off-road and stadium trucks on dirt in his native Southern California, Eldora is nothing like he ever raced on before. The half-mile dirt track in rural Ohio is banked 24 degrees in the corners and 8 degrees on the straightaways. It is a fast, treacherous track.

This will be Johnson’s fifth visit to the Prelude to the Dream, and early on, he struggled mightily.

“In the dirt car, you don’t want to slide,” Johnson said. “You want to drive it as close as you can to an asphalt car. My first two trips up there — my first trip, for sure — I was trying to flick the car into the corner like I would an off-road truck. It looked cool. I was doing cool slides but, on the stopwatch, it wasn’t right. So, that’s the thing I have to remind myself is, you drive it straight as they say, and kind of lock down the back and try to drive it like an asphalt car.”

In 2010, Johnson won the event, besting a number of drivers, including Stewart, who had a good deal more dirt experience than he did.

Still, it’s a challenge for him each time he makes his annual trek to rural Ohio.

“The vehicles are so different,” said Johnson. “Even though I won there a couple of years ago, that’s the hardest thing to remember and figure out. Back, deep in my mind, I have dirt experience and sensations, but the vehicle dynamics are so different. These dirt late models have lift bars and a rear end, where the left-rear tire moves a couple of feet when you’re in and out of the gas. So, it is far different than what I grew up doing. But I seem to have adapted well and I look forward to going back.”

Once again this year, Johnson’s car owner for Eldora will be none other than Clint Bowyer, who unlike Johnson was a serious dirt late model racer in his native Kansas. Bowyer has built and raced many dirt cars and Johnson lets him run the show at Eldora.

“I sit back and watch and laugh,” Johnson said. “Anything with Bowyer is highly entertaining. He’s been very nice to build me a car every year I’ve competed. I know all of his guys and watched them from afar with the success they have in the dirt series and I have pride in feeling like I’m part of their team.”

Johnson said he prefers not to do anything special to prepare for the Prelude to the Dream.

“Jump in and go, yeah,” he said. “I tested one time and it actually hurt me, I felt like. So, the very first year was important to learn how to drive the thing but, after that, I just show up and drive, now.”

As for Stewart’s goal to raise $1 million for Feed The Children, Johnson is all in. The top-10 finishers in the race will each get to have a truckload of food sent to the city of their choice.

“It’s fantastic, especially how it continues to grow and continues to help and affect more people,” he said. “I hope to finish in the top-10 and then I look forward to figuring out where I can send a truckload of food. That will be extremely helpful to any community or any town.”

Tom Jensen is the Editor in Chief of SPEED.com, Senior NASCAR Editor at RACER and a contributing Editor for TruckSeries.com. You can follow him online at twitter.com/tomjensen100.