HAMPTON, Georgia – Corey LaJoie left Atlanta Motor Speedway with a severely damaged car that came agonizingly close to a victory — and no regrets about how any of it transpired Sunday.
By Nate Ryan
“I’ll watch it back probably 100 times,’ LaJoie said after being squeezed into the wall while trying to pass race winner Chase Elliott on the last lap for his first NASCAR Cup Series victory. “I’ll replay it 100 times in my head on the way back on the plane, but I don’t think I’d change anything right now, because I was going for it, and I was not content to push (Elliott) to the win.
“There’s a little bit of a Chevy alliance and Hendrick help here and there, but I didn’t come here to be a good friend to somebody.”
The result was a 21st place finish for the Spire Motorsports driver that hardly was indicative of how good he was over 400 miles at the revamped Atlanta, which produced superspeedway-style racing akin to Daytona and Talladega in its second race since the 1.5-mile oval was resurfaced with higher banking and narrower turns.
LaJoie started 30th and led 19 laps in the No. 7 Chevrolet – taking first for the final time just before a caution set up the final restart with three laps remaining.
LaJoie took the inside for the final green flag and was unable to stop Elliott from charging around the outside on Lap 259 of 260.
But he made believers out of two NASCAR Hall of Famers from Hendrick Motorsports, whom LaJoie once publicly lobbied for the No. 48 ride when Jimmie Johnson retired.
“I was proud and excited and if we couldn’t win, I wanted (LaJoie) to win,” said Rick Hendrick, whose team supplies engines and has a technical alliance with Spire. “He’s a great guy. That was a Cinderella story, and if we couldn’t win, I wanted him to win. He looked as good as anyone in this field today.”
Said Gordon: “I like Corey’s attitude, his drive and he’s got a lot of passion he showed that today. I thought he and the team and the car showed a lot today. You want a guy like that who has the pedigree and passion he has to get the opportunity that he’s searching for, and I think today will go a long way.
“It was a lot of fun watching them racing hard but also racing together. I kind of wish it could have been a 1-2 instead of the way it ended up. He’s been around a long time and knows the ebbs and flows, and his performance will do more for him today than the result will show.”
Though he has hailed the Next Gen car as a vehicle for raising his profile, LaJoie, 30, downplayed the message he sent about his ability.
“It’s up to (the media) to tell the story of how good of a driver I am,” LaJoie said. “I’ve always been the type to try to let the results show, but when you pull up Racing-Reference under Corey LaJoie’s name, there’s not a whole lot of stats to show for it because every team I’ve driven for has been a sub-30 team in points when I got there. I feel like I’ve made all of them better. It’s just impossible to make that much of a gain against teams that are winning races.
“That’s why runs like these make you feel so good and hopefully pumps the guys up at the shop. Because those guys work their fingers to the bone. It just sucks, but I wouldn’t change a thing. I’m actually more content seeing the 7 in 21st wadded up than I would have been with second or third because then I would have been even more mad. It would have paid way better, but that’s irrelevant.”
The closing laps crackled with intensity and emotion for LaJoie, who was ranked 31st in the points and without a top 10 since finishing fifth in the March 20 race at the track.
“The last time I raced Chase when there was no one in front of us but the pace car was 10 years ago,” LaJoie said. “Obviously our careers have taken different trajectories, but I do feel I’m capable in the right scenario with these guys I’m with now do a good job for me.
“We’ve had a tough little stretch. If anything, it isn’t finishing position, it’s proving we can do it. If we execute and build fast race cars, having a day like today where we hit it all, we can be as good as the powerhouses. You can’t string those runs together each week because we don’t have the depth, but to have these runs occasionally makes you feel good. and I’m looking forward to doing it more often.”
Elliott, who raced LaJoie in the K&N Series before winning the 2014 Xfinity Series championship and 2020 Cup title, seemed conflicted about his winning move before a hometown crowd that raucously cheered for the Dawsonville, Georgia, native.
“I hate to throw a mega block like that,” Elliott said. “I shied away from that big block throughout the day. I’d always given in at different points to a guy when they had that big of a run.
“If you let him go, one of two things can happen, you choose the lane you want to lose in and hope you have enough time to get him back. Or you throw a big block and hope you can stay in front of him. You can crash throwing a big block. Or try to be patient and wait and then the crash happens behind you, and you’ve given up the lead, and the caution comes out and now the race is over. I don’t know how you exactly know what choice to make.
“(LaJoie) is coming with a massive run. Am I taking a chance of crashing when I threw it up in front of him? Absolutely. I didn’t think I was getting another shot if I let him grab the lead. I felt more comfortable defending more aggressively up to the top. I felt it was a situation I could win on, but those situations are impossible. I don’t know how you know what’s going to happen next to be able to make that choice.”
There were no hard feelings for LaJoie, who went to victory lane to congratulate Elliott. During multiple postrace interviews, LaJoie deemed Elliott’s block as necessary because it’s “the last lap of the race and especially in front of Dawsonville’s finest. You’ve got to go for it.
“Anything’s fair,” LaJoie said. “Everything’s fair. You’ve got to win the race. Especially how much weight is on it. How much money is involved in it. The paycheck I got for finishing fifth (in the March 20 race at Atlanta) was one reason I wasn’t content to run fifth. It doesn’t pay enough to run fifth. You’ve got to win the race. So you’ve got to block. You’ve got to dump. You’ve got to send it in there. And if you’re in position and don’t make a move, then it’s your fault because the next guy is going to do it.
“It’s a bit out of character just for me to be racing for wins. It’s something new for the fans to see me racing up front and hopefully it’s not an unfamiliar sight going forward, because as a team I think we can do it. Not every week but more consistently than we’ve shown so far this year.”
Said crew chief Ryan Sparks to NBC Sports: “I thought we were in position to win and got run in the fence, and I’d like to think my driver would do the same thing. The shoe will be on the other foot one day. There’s nothing to hang our heads about. The past two months have been rough. It killed all our confidence as a team and Corey as a driver. There’s a lot to be proud of and a bright future ahead.”
And there could be one more opportunity to qualify for the Cup playoffs in the Aug. 27 regular-season finale at Daytona International Speedway (though LaJoie also would need to a climb a spot into the top 30 in the points standings for eligibility).
Last August at Daytona, LaJoie was running second at the white flag before piling into a last-lap crash and finishing 16th. After applying many of the lessons he learned from that race Sunday, he has belief that “we can throw a Hail Mary again.
“Confidence with a driver is the most important commodity,” LaJoie said. “You can’t go to a store and find it. You can’t go to the simulator and find it.
“When you get kicked in the (groin) 32 weeks out of the year, it is hard to muster up confidence of what you think you can do in a race car.
“That car’s going to the junkyard, but I’m sure Daytona, those guys will have one built and have another solid game plan and hopefully we’re in the top 2-3 rows when the pay window is open.”
Note: Corey LaJoie is the son of two-time Xfinity Champion Randy LaJoie who grew up in Norwalk, CT.
Featured photo: (Adam Hagy-USA TODAY Sports)