Every champion needs a rival ... even in competitive hot dog eating ... and that's why Joey Chestnut tells TMZ Sports he misses bellying up next to Kobayashi.
Chestnut is in NYC gearing up for the biggest day of his year -- the Nathan's 4th of July Hot Dog Eating contest in Coney Island -- and "Jaws" says he's expecting nothing but sweet sweet victory.
Let's be honest ... he'll probably win by a landslide again because he really hasn't been challenged since Kobayashi left Major League Eating and stopped competing in the July 4th spectacular.
"I miss competing against him," Chestnut says ... "He's a great competitor."
Joey says he wishes Kobayashi would drop his beef with MLE and figure out a way to return to the big leagues ... but the guy still refuses to sign a contract.
Joey suggests Kobayashi is just being a sore loser -- sounds like Jaws is calling him out!!!
Hopefully, it's enough to entice the Japanese eating machine to get his ass back to Coney Island.