Will Japanese Hotdog Champ Stomach Defeat?

The table is set for the crowning of the next king of competitive eating. California's Joey "Jaws" Chestnut is heading out to New York's Coney Island as America's greatest hope to match appetites with Japanese hot dog legend Takeru Kobayashi.

It's been a storybook year for Chestnut, the 22-year-old engineering student from San Jose State University who recently devoured 173 chicken wings in 30 minutes to win Philadelphia's coveted Wingbowl.

In recent months, the California kid has beaten just about every top-ranked American eater, setting records in grilled cheese sandwiches (47 in 10 minutes), waffles (18.5 in 10 minutes) and deep-fried asparagus (6.3 pounds in 11.5 minutes).

Then, a few weeks ago, Chestnut knocked on the door of greatness, becoming the first American to eat 50 hot dogs in 12 minutes in Las Vegas so that he could qualify for the Coney Island contest.

Chestnut's achievement marks the first time that any competitive eater other than Kobayashi had broken the 50-dog barrier -- and it now raises America's hope that the Nathan's Famous Mustard Yellow Hot Dog Championship Belt might return to its homeland.

"Kobayashi can't be champ forever," says Chestnut. "I can't say I'm going to win. But I think we'll see a new hot dog record. I just hope it's me who sets it."

The Lance Armstrong of Competitive Eating

The July Fourth hot dog championship -- a New York tradition since 1916 -- has become a national event in recent years, with live broadcasts on ESPN and the ABC Radio network, and this year's contest promises to be the most intense battle yet.

Often called the Lance Armstrong of competitive eating, the 27-year-old Kobayashi has won the Coney Island showdown five years in a row. In 2001, when he downed 50 dogs in 12 minutes, he doubled the world's record, set a year earlier by another Japanese eater.

The 5-foot, 6-inch champ has truly revolutionized eating contests, which were once thought of as a large-man's sport. He weighed just 130 pounds when he first took the Coney Island championship, and even now, at a lean 175 pounds, he's less than half the weight of many of his rivals.

In 2004, Kobayashi set his high mark of 53.5 hot dogs. But last year, he regressed to 49 hotdogs. That was still more than enough to win -- the next closest competitor consumed 38 -- but now the competition is changing.

"Joey Chestnut is clearly going to change the face of American competitive eating. He may become the greatest eater in America, if not the world," says George Shea, president of the International Federation of Competitive Eating.

Chestnut began his eating career just two years ago at a Mexican restaurant near school. As the fourth of five kids in an Italian-Irish family, he had all the preparation he needed to get into eat-for-glory sporting, he says.

"We always had enough food to go around," he says. "But if you wanted seconds, you had to act fast."

When Chestnut arrived in New York City on Friday, four of his siblings were with him, and he'll need their support to take on competitive eating's greatest legend -- a man who once challenged a kodiak bear to a two-minute eat-off on Japanese TV.

While Kobayashi lost that contest, he seldom loses. PinnacleSports.com has pegged the champ as a 1-to-3 favorite to regain his crown. At 3-to-1, Chestnut is given the best odds among the 18 challengers.

Here's a look at the rest of the rivals who'll be at the hot dog table with Kobayashi. All are seasoned veterans of competitive eating. Pray they won't be coming to your July Fourth barbecue:

Sonya "The Black Widow" Thomas -- The world's top female eater has set records in hard-boiled eggs (65 in 6 minutes, 40 seconds), cheesecake (11 pounds in 9 minutes) chicken nuggets (80 in 5 minutes).

The 100-pound McDonald's manager from Alexandria, Va., has proved that women and people of any weight can compete in eating contests. Thomas, 38, finished No.2 at Coney Island last year, eating 37 dogs (a world record for women).

But Thomas is a 21-to-1 long shot this year. She ate just 36.5 dogs at a Philadelphia Nathan's qualifier a few weeks ago, and many believe that she's hit her limit. Still, the Black Widow is a fierce competitor.

Eric "Badlands" Booker -- This New York subway conductor, tipping the scales at 425 pounds, is the biggest eater going for hot dog glory. He holds the world's record for matzo balls (25 in 5 minutes) and pumpkin pie. He's also distinguished himself as a rapper, with his debut album, "Hungry and Focused"

Kamil Hamersky -- No food is closer to the hot dog than the sausage, and Hamersky, a native of the Czech Republic, is the international Terno Sausage Champion, gobbling 25 in 3 minutes. It's unclear how the 35-year-old will handle meat coupled with a bun, however, and Hamersky has never competed in the United States.

Patrick Bertoletti -- You'd have to be suffering from brain freeze to discount Bertoletti, a 20-year-old culinary student from Chicago, who set the 12-minute ice-cream record in June, consuming 1.75 gallons of vanilla at the Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory.

Crazy Legs Conti -- A 35-year-old independent filmmaker, Conti famously ate his way out of an 8-foot box of popcorn a few years ago to promote his film, "Zen and the Art of Competitive Eating."

Jed Donahue -- Sweet or spicy, it doesn't matter to Donahue, the 32-year-old former World Jalapeno Pepper Champ (152 in 15 minutes), who also races in glazed doughnuts (30.5 in 8 minutes).

Hall Hunt -- You don't have to be a genius to be a top-ranked competitive eater, but Hall Hunt is a member of Mensa, the society for people with exceptionally high IQs. He's a 24-year-old civil engineering student at the University of Florida, but this genius will have to figure out how to improve his average of 18.6 hot dogs if he's going to be taken seriously at Kobayashi's dinner table.

Robert Andersson -- The 31-year-old Scandinavian hot dog champ comes to the Coney Island competition for the first time. But by eating 32 dogs at a qualifying event, he's got a good shot of finishing in the top five.

Tim Janus -- The International Federation of Competitive Eating's 2004 Rookie of the Year has distinguished himself with desserts, setting records in tiramisu (4 pounds in 6 minutes) and shoofly pie (6 pounds in 8 minutes). He's a 29-year-old day trader from New York, who makes his own beef jerky.

Rich LeFevre -- The old man of the competitive eating circuit shouldn't be underestimated. This 62-year-old retired accountant from Nevada is the No. 5 ranked IFOCE competitor and fittingly holds the record in birthday cake (5 pounds in 11 minutes) as well as SPAM (6 pounds in 12 minutes).

Seaver Miller -- A first-time competitor from Ashburn, Va., Seaver "the Achiever" ate 20.25 hotdogs at a Pennsylvania qualifier.

Kenji Oguni -- Another rising star in the Japanese food world, the 28-year-old Oguni won the Togukusha-Soba Eating Contest and two Food Fight Association Formula Battles in 2003.

Allen Goldstein -- Nicknamed "The Shredder" for his sharp teeth, the 40-year-old Goldstein is at his best in meat racing, competing in bologna, lobster and corned beef and cabbage.

Patrick Philbin -- A 41-year-old New Jersey resident who has tried to establish a sister-city relationship between his hometown of Moonachie and Little Rock, Ark., hoping to promote economic development through competitive eating. Finished fifth in the Corned Beef-Eating World Championship (4 pounds in 10 minutes).

Bob Shoudt -- If Coney Island had a tofu hot dog contest, "Humble" Bob Shoudt would be a favorite. This 286-pound resident of Royersford, Pa., is a vegetarian and only eats meat in IFOCE events. He still managed to finish fourth at the 2005 Krystal Burger Square Off (51 burgers in 8 minutes).

"Chip Burger" Simpson -- A fast-rising star who took the recent Berryhill Baja Grill Tamale Eating Championship (41 tamales in 12 minutes). Simpson, 24, graduated from Slipper Rock University, and scarfed down 38 dogs at a Nathan's qualifier in Minnesota.

Brian Subich -- The football coach at Johnstown High School, Subich has distinguished himself in baked beans (6.5 pounds in 12 minutes) and finished fourth at New York's 2005 San Gennaro Festival Cannoli Eating Contest (18 cannoli in 6 minutes).

Buck Wolf is an entertainment producer at ABCNEWS.com. "The Wolf Files" is published Tuesdays.