The Frontstretch: Turning Back the Clock- 1994 The Pantry 400 featuring the Pantry Stores 300 by Phil Allaway -- Friday January 21, 2011

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Since we’re fully ensconced in the off-season at the present, we here at Frontstretch figured that we’d give you a look back at some nostalgic races. Today is the first in the “Winter Heat” series (brownie points for those who know where we were going with that).

Before the now-Nationwide Series had 27 support races to the Sprint Cup Series all over the country on its schedule, it tended to be more of a regional series, with many events on southeastern short tracks. However, by the early 1990’s, these races were beginning to disappear from the circuit. The last sub-100 mile race was held at then-Pulaski County Speedway (now Motor Mile Speedway) in 1992.

By 1994, only a few of these classic short tracks remained on the calendar, as the short track dates were cut off the schedule or replaced with support events for Winston Cup. One short track that was still on the schedule was Orange County Speedway in Rougemont, North Carolina. Up until 1993, the track hosted two Busch Grand National races. However, for ’94, the track was cut down to just one, a shame for such a competitive track.

Orange County Speedway is a 0.375 mile oval with roughly 14 degrees of banking in the turns and a slight graduation to the banking. As a result, the racing line was in the middle of the track as opposed to the bottom. Side-by-side racing was always the norm.

Before we get into the actual race, something should be stated about the race name. On Racing Reference, the race is referred to as the Pantry Stores 300. However, on the TNN broadcast, it was referred to as The Pantry 400, complete with a race logo. Later in the year, the second race at Hickory Motor Speedway was also referred to as The Pantry 400. Weird.

Of note, The Pantry is a company that runs a chain of gas stations and convenient stores in the Southeast under the Kangaroo brand name. After a quick referral via e-mail with Mike Joy, who provided play-by-play for TNN that day, I have decided to refer to the day of racing as “The Pantry 400 featuring the Pantry Stores 300” and the race as simply the Pantry Stores 300. Convoluted, but it gets the job done. Now, on to the race.

Jason Keller started his family-owned No. 57 Chevrolet on the pole with Kenny Wallace alongside. Keller led the first lap, but Kenny powered by Keller to take the lead in Turn 1 immediately afterwords.

Roughly 10 laps into the race, Chad Chaffin brought the Day Enterprises No. 16 Chevrolet to a near halt on the frontstretch. The caution was not thrown for the young Chaffin, who was able to get his Lumina back underway. However, the problems would not end for the No. 16 team. Chaffin was eventually the first car out of the race with ignition failure after completing 40 laps.

Once out in front, Wallace asserted himself and pulled away from the field. Behind the lead duo, there was a three-way battle for third between David Green, Michael Ritch and Johnny Benson. Hermie Sadler was also running down the triumvirate in the No. 25 Virginia is for Lovers Chevrolet.

Around Lap 20, there was a stack up on the backstretch when the No. 27 of Roy Payne cut a tire, par for the course during his short time in Busch Grand National. Luckily, he was able to get his Chevrolet to pit road without drawing a caution, but he lost multiple laps. Another field stack up occurred a couple of laps later when Mike McLaughlin also cut a tire and cut across the track right in front of the leader to get to pit road.

The long green flag run to start the race saw much of the back of the field get lapped. The constant traffic allowed Wallace to pull away from the rest of the frontrunners even more.

Tire problems continued for Payne, as he managed to blow out another right front tire just 15 laps after the first failure. Payne lost an additional couple of laps riding around in the top lane trying to find a hole to get to pit road before finally pitting. Shortly afterwords, Green pitted his No. 44 Slim Jim Chevrolet out of second with a suspected flat tire. The Labonte Racing team changed right sides and sent Green back out, but neither tire was obviously flat like Payne’s two tires and McLaughlin’s right front from earlier. Robert Pressley in the Budget Gourmet No. 99 and Tommy Houston also had tire issues and pitted under the green.

Not even Grand National champions were safe on the tight confines of Orange County Speedway, as David Green learned early during the final NNS race hosted in Rougemont back in 1994.

Meanwhile, Sadler and Jim Bown were able to pass Ritch and Benson to take second and third on Lap 55. However, they were miles behind Wallace until the first caution of the race, which came out on Lap 70 for a crash involving Pressley and Green. No replay was shown of the crash on the TNN broadcast. According to Green, Pressley spun out in front of him and he got run over from behind by the No. 72 of Tracy Leslie. Green spun and backed into the outside wall, while Pressley and Leslie continued on (Leslie without his hood). Green would spend a significant period of time behind the wall for repairs; the Labonte Racing team did eventually get the No. 44 back on track, but Green finished 128 laps down in 26th position.

Due to the tire rule that the teams were forced to operate under by NASCAR (one tire change per corner of the car allowed under caution for the whole race, unlimited under green), only some of the leaders chose to pit, while others stayed out. Wallace once again led the field to the green with Sadler second, Bown third, Doug Heveron in the Food Country USA No. 75 in fourth and Ricky Craven fifth.

While Wallace drove away once again, most of the rest of the field was forced to check up when Bown had contact with then-points leader Randy LaJoie in the No. 20 Fina Chevrolet. LaJoie got loose in front of most of the field, but recovered.

On Lap 87, Kevin Lepage spun his No. 71 Vermont Teddy Bear Company Chevrolet in Turn 2, but quickly continued. No caution was thrown for the incident.

With the quick pace of the race, Wallace was putting cars a lap down at a rapid pace. By Lap 100, only eight of the 33 starters remained on the lead lap.

The second caution flew on Lap 105 for a wreck involving Doug Heveron’s No. 75 Oldsmobile and Hermie Sadler’s Chevrolet, the drivers who just so happened to be running second and third at the time. Replays were unclear, but it appeared that Heveron had a tire go down entering Turn 1, sending him hard into the outside wall.

In an interview with TNN’s Glenn Jarrett, Heveron claimed that it was a right rear that went down. Sadler, who was behind Heveron but not close enough to touch him, appeared to lock up the brakes and also have contact with the outside wall. Replays of the crash can be seen at the beginning of this clip. Heveron was out on the spot due to the crash, while Sadler was able to continue following seven very quick stops on pit road for repairs under yellow.

Wallace led once again on the Lap 117 restart with Bown second and Craven, Dennis Setzer and Ritch rounding out the top 5. Wallace got the jump on Bown, and promptly put the lapped cars of Tommy Ellis and LaJoie between himself and second place. Craven took advantage of Bown’s substandard restart to take second away.

The third caution flew on Lap 130 for a multi-car crash on the frontstretch involving Mike Skinner, Stevie Reeves, Rodney Combs and Lepage. The replay, shown from a trackside camera, showed that Skinner spun his No. 88 exiting Turn 4. Combs was spun out by Payne and Reeves spun to the inside to avoid Skinner, while Lepage hit the No. 88 on the right side near the outside wall, crossed the track, then hit the inside wall. The crash can be seen towards the end of the same clip as the Heveron-Sadler crash mentioned above. Skinner’s part-time No. 88 was out on the spot, while Lepage went behind the wall for extensive repairs, but came back to finish the race. Combs and Reeves lost a bunch of laps on pit road, but continued.

The restart was quirky after Wallace didn’t start well and Tommy Houston went to the outside of Ellis (who started alongside of Wallace) for position. This held up Wallace and allowed Sadler to get inside to take the lead away. Sadler had taken advantage of four fresh tires after his incident with Heveron to move up through the pack (also of note, Sadler was not charged for his tire change due to being involved in an incident).

The fourth caution came out on Lap 147 for a crash in Turn 1 as Bown was attempting an ill-advised three-wide move to the inside of Ellis and Benson. Benson and Ellis had contact, bouncing Ellis into Bown, who spun entering Turn 1. The No. 63 was then hit by Combs after it came to rest. Leslie was spun by the No. 0 LaWarre Motorsports Chevrolet of Mike Garvey and hit by the No. 9 of Nathan Buttke (Buttke was driving the No. 9 in place of Mike Wallace, who was in Talladega for the Winston Select 500). The crash can be viewed at the 2:59 mark of this clip. Combs went behind the wall for extensive repairs, but came back out to finish the race in 28th, 142 laps down. Leslie, Buttke and Bown continued immediately.

Sadler led on the restart with Larry Pearson in second, followed by Benson, Ritch and Wallace. Wallace had stopped under the previous caution to take his one set of fresh tires and was once again the quickest car on the track after the restart. It took all of 14 laps for Wallace to come back up from fifth to retake the lead.

Wallace continued to lead until the fifth caution flew for debris on Lap 228. By that time, he had lapped all the way up to seventh place Pearson. Sadler took advantage of the caution to make his final stop for tires.

Wallace led again on the restart, but like after Sadler’s wreck with Heveron, he came on like his pants were on fire. It took only eight laps for Sadler to get the lead from Wallace. However, the sixth yellow flew right as Sadler took the lead from Wallace.

The yellow flew for a big crash involving LaJoie on the frontstretch. It was very unclear from the replay, but it appeared that LaJoie was hooked in the right rear by Setzer. Randy disagreed with this and claimed in an interview (while holding son Corey) that he was trying too hard and spun himself out. Regardless of who was to blame, LaJoie turned into the outside wall and hit it with the right front. The force lifted the No. 20 off the ground and the right rear corner of the Fina Chevrolet wiped out the speed shot camera just past the start-finish line. LaJoie’s car then spun to the apron. The crash, along with Sadler’s pass for the lead, can be seen starting at the 7:20 mark of this clip.

The green came back out with 50 laps to go and Sadler began to run away from the field. Fresh tires were everything on this day and Sadler fully exploited them. Meanwhile, Wallace and Setzer battled for second place, over three seconds behind. Sadler seemed to have the race won. But, it was only just beginning.

Review of video replay snatched a seeming victory from the hands of Dennis Setzer.

With three laps to go, George Crenshaw blew the engine in his No. 07 Campbell’s Soup Chevrolet, oiling down the track. No yellow was thrown, as NASCAR was looking to see whether Crenshaw could get to pit road. Unfortunately, a multi-car crash broke out in Turn 1 when Craven was spun out by Tim Fedewa, resulting in both cars hitting the outside wall. Reeves spun out and Sadler spun into Reeves (possibly after slight contact from the No. 79 of Dave Rezendes), heavily damaging his rear end. Sadler got going and raced Setzer back to the start-finish line, but Setzer beat him to the line to supposedly clinch victory. Or, he thought he did.

Replays showed that Sadler actually took the caution with three laps to go, right before he spun out. Under NASCAR rules, all Sadler would have had to do to claim victory was maintain a reasonable pace in front of Setzer. He had a huge lead when he spun, but he was maintaining regular pace by the time Setzer caught him, so Sadler was able to claim his second and most recent Busch Grand National victory. The whole mess surrounding the end of the race can be seen starting at the 4:10 mark of this clip.

In Victory Lane, confusion reigned supreme. But Sadler was very pleased at the Beverley Racing team’s effort at Orange County Speedway.

“I have to give all the credit to Bobby Kennedy and this whole Virginia is for Lovers race team,” Sadler told TNN’s Glenn Jarrett in Victory Lane. “They did a super, super job. We ran super all day. Everything went our way. I’ll tell you what, Orange County [Speedway] must be something special. I wish we could run here every week.”

Setzer was forced to settle for second, while Wallace was third, despite leading a race-high 214 laps. With the fast pace and the late crash, they were the only three drivers on the lead lap at the finish. Benson finished fourth, one lap down. Craven was able to limp his damaged No. 2 home in fifth.

Ellis was sixth in the No. 05 Chevrolet, which was owned by an early version of Key Motorsports. Bown faded to seventh after the toe went out on the No. 63. Pearson was eighth. Ritch had to settle for ninth, two laps down in his Oldsmobile. It turned out to be his best career finish in 39 starts. Bobby Dotter, three laps down at the finish, rounded out the top 10.

LaJoie’s crash (and the resulting 24th place finish) cost him his points lead. Wallace’s third-place finish gave him a 27 point lead over Sadler, with LaJoie third, 58 back. Craven and Green rounded out the top 5.

Unfortunately, after continuing schedule changes in the Busch Grand National division in the 1990’s, this was the final race for the series at the three-eighths mile oval. The race recapped here was already in jeopardy due to septic issues with the track. Luckily, the issues were fixed up, guaranteeing the race (and for that matter, the rest of the weekly cards) would go off. Editions of NASCAR Winston Cup Scene from 1995 showed that a race was actually scheduled to be held at Orange County Speedway that season; the event was canceled before it was run. The cancellation dropped the number of races on the schedule to 26. Other races that were dropped from the slate included both Martinsville races, and the fall race at Hickory. Nashville Speedway (now Nashville Fairgrounds Raceway) and Homestead were added in.

I hope you enjoyed this look back at the Pantry Stores 300. Check back soon, when we’ll have another classic race to tide you over before Speedweeks. Have a great week.

Contact Phil Allaway

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