Hello, again. It’s time to take another look at a classic race. As you may already know, the Nationwide Series has raced at Indianapolis Raceway Park (now O’Reilly Raceway Park) since the series became a dedicated touring series in 1982. At the time, NASCAR had to sweeten the deal for teams to actually make the trip up from the Carolinas. That is not the case today, despite the constant start-and-park issues that plague the series.
Races at IRP/ORP can be either quite boring, or quite exciting. The 1991 Kroger 200 It was just quirky. At the time, the Kroger 200 was held on an off-weekend for the Winston Cup Series in between Talladega and Watkins Glen. As a result, multiple Winston Cup regulars made the trip to Clermont, Indiana for the two-day show—Dale Earnhardt was there with a borrowed car from Ken Schrader, Winston Cup rookie Bobby Hamilton made the trip, as did Dale Jarrett, Morgan Shepherd and Darrell Waltrip (Waltrip had to qualify via a Promoter’s Option). Davey Allison was there with his No. 28 Havoline Buick, but decided at the last minute to opt out of the race because of a hand injury suffered the previous week at Talladega when he punched his hauler. Hut Stricklin drove in his place. Dick Trickle also could have been considered a Cup driver at the time since he started the season in a full-time ride (the No. 66 Phillips 66/TropArtic Motor Oil Pontiac for Cale Yarborough Motorsports), but was fired four weeks into the season and replaced with Lake Speed.
Entering the race, Kenny Wallace in the Cox Lumber No. 36 held a 173 point lead over Bobby Labonte as a result of Wallace finishing no worse than second (with a victory in the Budweiser 300—now a Sprint Cup event—at then-New Hampshire International Raceway) over the previous three races. Meanwhile, Labonte had three terrible weeks in a row. He blew an engine in New Hampshire, finished 11th at South Boston (but six laps down at the finish), then crashed twice at Pulaski County Speedway and finished 25th (two name changes later, its now MotorMile Speedway).
Ward Burton started his No. 27 Gwaltney Big 8’s Buick from his first Busch pole with a lap of 110.516 mph alongside Robert Pressley’s Alliance No. 59. The lap was actually faster than the pole for last years 200 lapper.
At the start, Burton jumped out to a decent advantage, while Pressley simply got a terrible start and dropped right out of the top 5. Meanwhile, Earnhardt, who had to get into the event through a 25-lap qualifying race, was slowly making his way up through the field from his 24th starting spot.
After ten laps, Labonte in his No. 44 Penrose Oldsmobile began to put pressure on Burton but was unable to make the pass. Defending champion Chuck Bown closed up on the duo as well, making it a three-way battle for the lead. In addition, the aforementioned three drivers were setting a torrid pace—by Lap 45, there were only 22 of the 34 starters left on the lead lap. Amongst those who had already been lapped were Bobby Dotter, Tracy Leslie and Darrell Waltrip, who eventually pulled out after completing 108 laps due to overheating after struggling with a car that did not run well on bias-ply tires.
Burton was still up front and holding off Labonte until he got loose entering Turn 1 on Lap 48. The Gwaltney Buick slid up the track and brushed the outside wall right rear first, then again with the right front. Though he kept the No. 27 pointed in the right direction he had dropped back to fourth after recovering. The wall contact can be seen at the 5:00 mark of this clip.
Labonte benefited from Burton’s misfortune and swept past to take the lead with Bown second and Jimmy Hensley in the unsponsored Beverley Racing No. 25 in third. Tire issues started to become an issue past Lap 50 when Earnhardt was forced to pit to replace right side tires down to the cords and lost a couple of laps in the process. Then, Dale Jarrett’s No. 32 Nestle Crunch Pontiac hit the wall in Turn 4 right after being lapped by Labonte. After circulating rather slowly for a lap, Jarrett brought his car in for a stop.
Shortly afterwards, Earnhardt’s night came to an abrupt end while he attempted to make up time after his unscheduled pit stop. Earnhardt attempted an aggressive outside move on Morgan Shepherd and proceeded to have contact with the No. 97, putting himself into the outside wall though no caution was thrown for the incident. The crash occurred during a commercial for ESPN, but a replay can be seen at the 8:25 mark of the aforementioned clip.
Meanwhile on track, Labonte was starting to feel some pressure from Hensley, who had taken second away from Bown. Together, the duo had pulled away from Bown and Burton while simultaneously dealing with lapped traffic. Some of the lapped cars were nowhere near the pace of the leaders, but Dotter and Leslie simply got off to bad starts and were able to keep up after being lapped. In fact, Leslie passed Hensley and Bown and was just about to unlap himself when the first caution came out on Lap 67.
Replays were unclear, but it appeared that the No. 85 of Lonnie Rush, Jr. spun exiting Turn 2 and had contact with the No. 96 of Tom Peck. Both cars continued, but a piece of Rush’s left front fender flew off on the backstretch, drawing the caution.
Under the yellow, the leaders took the opportunity to pit. Unlike today, where ORP has 43 pit boxes and a pit entry at the beginning of Turn 3, in 1991, drivers entered off of Turn 4 and if you didn’t qualify in the Top 16 or so, you had to pit behind the wall on the second pit road, which ran parallel to the main pit road. Thought it wasn’t ideal, it was the best setup that the track could come up with. Labonte took two tires and barely beat Hensley off pit road, while Bown took four tires. Wallace also took four tires but had to make two stops to do it so that he could stay on the lead lap.
Rookie David Green, driving the No. 8 TIC Financial Oldsmobile, stayed out and took the lead with Trickle in second. Labonte restarted in third while Bown, with his four tires, restarted in seventh. When the green came out, Trickle went to work on Green, while Hensley took third away from Labonte. Hensley then ran down the lead duo and drove his Cutlass to the outside of Trickle’s Cutlass for second. However, Hensley was boxed in by Green’s leading No. 8.
Meanwhile, behind the leaders, Bown had contact with the No. 67 of Elton Sawyer in Turn 4, spinning his No. 63 Nescafe Pontiac in front of half the field. Bown was then hit by Shepherd’s No. 97, bringing out the second caution of the race on Lap 82. The crash can be seen at the 7:55 mark of this clip. Shepherd, a part-time campaigner at the time, was out on the spot and finished 32nd.
At the time, the Busch Grand National Series had a tire rule that changed weekly according to which track the series was racing at. IRP’s tire rule was that teams could only change one tire per position during the race. Of course, additional changes were allowed if tires were blown out or cut. Bown blew out the right front and left rear tires in the crash, so the team was only allowed to change those two tires.
Green continued to lead on the restart over Trickle and Hensley. Bobby Hamilton, making a guest appearance in a No. 68 Country Time Oldsmobile painted almost identically to his Winston Cup car (the difference was that the headlight area was not blacked out on the Busch car), hit the wall in Turn 1 after being sideswiped by Burton. No yellow was thrown, but much of the field slowed up to avoid the stricken Oldsmobile.
While Hamilton was recovering, Hensley was able to get by Trickle for second and immediately began pressuring Green for the lead. It did not take long for Hensley to overwhelm Green and take the lead on Lap 90. Shortly after the pass, Stricklin slowed on the backstretch. Once in Turn 3, he was sideswiped by the No. 79 of Dave Rezendes. Dotter then ran in the back of Stricklin and spun his No. 08 Buick. No caution was thrown, but Dotter’s Buick Regal had its front end smashed in good. The incident can be seen at the 1:55 mark of this clip.
The third caution flew on Lap 103 for a crash involving Stricklin and Jeff Burton in Turn 3. There was no replay shown on ESPN, but it appeared that both drivers smacked the outside wall hard (especially Jeff’s No. 99). Neither driver was having a particularly good night, and the crash put both of them out on the spot.
On the restart, the throttle stuck on Burton’s No. 27 went down, sending the Gwaltney Big 8’s Buick up the hill. Since Burton was running second at the time, a mad scramble developed behind. The No. 27 was hit by Dotter and spun down the track, catching Wallace in the right rear and spinning the No. 36 hard into the outside wall. Meanwhile, Richard Lasater ran into the back of Ed Ferree, spinning out the No. 49. He was clipped by Jeff Gordon’s 1988 Ford Thunderbird. Peck, Rezendes and Ed Berrier piled in. Naturally, the caution came right back out. The crash can be seen at the 9:30 mark of the previously mentioned clip.
Ward Burton, Ferree and Lasater dropped out on the spot. Wallace’s car, which suffered rear suspension damage in the crash, was repaired behind the wall and got back out to make some laps before dropping out later on. Peck and Rezendes spent some time behind the wall for repairs, but rejoined and finished the event. Berrier and Gordon managed to keep going with minimal repairs on pit road.
On Lap 124, the race restarted with Hensley still in the lead while Leslie attempted once again to get his lap back on the outside. Leslie was able to clear Hensley and pulled out a gap between himself and the rest of the field. Hensley then fell into the clutches of Labonte, Bown and Tommy Houston, creating a four-way battle for the lead. Bown made short work of Labonte, then passed Hensley to take the lead on Lap 129.
The fifth caution flew shortly afterwards for a wreck involving Rush and Berrier in Turn 4. Replays showed that Rush simply spun on his own while running on the outside of Gordon, the result of a blown right rear tire. The No. 85 spun and backed into the wall slightly, then hit it again with the left side. Berrier simply spun to the inside to avoid Rush and did not hit anything—both drivers continued.
On the restart, Bown got a decent start and attempted to pull away from the field. However, Jarrett anticipated the start just as well and briefly got back onto the lead lap. The battle briefly brought Hensley back to Bown. Robert Pressley ran afoul of the yellow tire changing rule and was forced to pit under green to serve a two-lap penalty. Due to the penalty, Pressley was removed from any kind of contention and finished four laps down in 13th.
After putting Jarrett back a lap down, Bown proceeded to open up a good advantage over his competitors, who were still stuck behind Jarrett. With 52 laps to go, Green hit the wall in Turn 4 and broke the right front suspension on his Oldsmobile. Green got the No. 8 back to pit road, but the crew could not repair the car, forcing Green to retire from the race.
Behind Bown, a three-way battle for second developed between Hensley, Houston and Labonte with Houston eventually moving his Roses’ Stores Buick past Hensley for second. Labonte eventually took third from Hensley as the Virginian began to drop back with handling issues. Labonte then set his sights on Houston and second place. He would eventually snag the position with just under 25 laps to go.
Bown continued to lead comfortably until Hensley, who was still running in fourth, lost his brakes and hit the wall in Turn 2, bringing out the sixth and final caution with 16 laps to go. Hensley was ok, but the car was done for the evening.
However, the drama was only just beginning. With only one lap to green, Bown’s seatbelts came undone in Turn 2, forcing him to stop and re-fasten them. Bown radioed crew chief Jeff Hensley (Jimmy’s cousin) with the grim news just as Dave DeSpain was interviewing him for ESPN. You can see Hensley’s reaction to the news starting at the 0:20 mark of this clip. Just like what happened with Marcos Ambrose’s unfortunate coasting incident at Sonoma last June, Bown lost the lead to Labonte since he failed to maintain the pace under caution. The caution was also extended by a lap due to Bown choosing to stop on track. He would resume in the sixth position, last car on the lead lap.
Labonte led on the final restart with eight laps to go while Houston gave chase. Meanwhile, Bown and Leslie, who just happened to be on fresh tires, were both on a mission to move up through the field. They both made short work of Joe Nemechek and Bown passed Leslie to move into fourth. Trickle was next up to be passed, but Trickle used the lapped car of Jarrett as a pick. Leslie repassed Bown and dropped the No. 63 back to fifth as a result.
Meanwhile, Houston had fallen back from Labonte into Trickle’s clutches. With a little over four laps to go, it appeared that Trickle had just a little contact with Houston in Turn 3, resulting in the No. 6 Buick hitting the wall and allowing Trickle, Leslie and Bown past. Since Trickle was forced to check up, Leslie took advantage and got to the inside of Trickle to take second. However, Labonte was not going to be touched as he held on to take his second win of the season.
In Victory Lane, Bobby was happy that he finally shook off his bad luck.
“I just [want] to thank everyone on this Penrose Oldsmobile team. They’ve done a terrific job these past three weeks, but they’ve probably wanted to shoot me since I’ve torn up everything it seems like,” Labonte said to ESPN’s Dave DeSpain. “We had a lot of good luck tonight when Chuck [Bown] had his problems, and that just made things a lot easier. Now, we can concentrate on next week and at least we can come home with a car that wasn’t burnt.”
Labonte’s margin of victory was a third of a second over Leslie in second. Trickle finished third, followed by Bown, who led a race-high 61 laps before his belts unbuckled. Houston rounded out the top 5.
Nemechek finished in sixth, the last driver on the lead lap. Jarrett was one lap down in seventh, followed by Berrier in eighth despite being involved in two incidents on track. Jack Ingram brought his No. 11 Skoal Chevrolet home ninth, two laps down in what turned out to be his final career start in the series, and Troy Beebe rounded out the top 10 in his Taco Bell Chevrolet.
Labonte’s victory combined with Wallace’s 24th-place finish cut the deficit down by more than half. Wallace’s lead was now only 84 points with nine races left to run.
I hope you enjoyed today’s look back at the 1991 Kroger 200. If you would like to see more of these recaps, please direct your thoughts to either the comments section, or you can contact me via the contact e-mail form below. Thank you and stay tuned for more classic race recaps.
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