After four straight weeks of stacking pennies with solid top-20 finishes at COTA, Charlotte, Sonoma and Nashville, Corey LaJoie’s massive pile of copper was kicked over after an incident with Anthony Alfredo on lap 60 in the first leg of a weekend NASCAR Cup Series double header at Pocono Raceway.
The North Carolina-native was in the middle of a three-wide situation coming off of turn three in Saturday’s Pocono Organics CBD 325, which made his car snap loose and it sent him into Alfredo and put them both into the wall.
“That was a combination of putting myself in a bad aero spot, but also racing around guys who aren’t quite as experienced,” LaJoie explained to TobyChristie.com. “I felt like a lot of the guys, in that particular situation, would have cut me a break. We both would have lost some spots, but we both would have came away clean. You know, it’s a racing deal. I’m sure we both learned a little something from it.”
As the crash broke out, LaJoie had a chance to turn it into an iconic moment like Jimmie Johnson’s incredible save during qualifying at Dover back in 2006, but things didn’t quite go to plan.
“We were joking Sunday morning, TJ and I,” LaJoie recalled, “it’s like, when they show some of the all-time greatest saves, they show Jimmie Johnson spin 47 times on the frontstretch at Dover and when they show one of the worst saves of all-time, they’ll show my replay spinning down the frontstretch hitting the wall on every single 360 at Pocono.”
After pirouetting into the wall time and time again caused enough damage to force the No. 7 Spire Motorsports team to a backup car for Sunday’s Explore the Pocono Mountains 350, LaJoie felt it was only right if he stayed with the team overnight and helped them prepare the backup car for Sunday’s race.
— Spire Motorsports (@SpireMotorsport) June 27, 2021
“I’ve got big Randy’s voice in my ear throughout that day. The last thing I’m going to do is tear a primary car up and then go on a nature hike with my wife somewhere in the Poconos at a state park. That ain’t how it works,” LaJoie said. “I had my hand in tearing it up, so I was going to have my hand in putting it back together and doing what I can to get those things turned around. We have a lean group already, in terms of hands and help at the racetrack. Any time you get put behind the eight ball like we were on Saturday night, you know, it’s not like I’m doing it for the social media likes, I’m doing it help out and to get our guys in a better spot.”
LaJoie, 29, even canceled dinner plans with his wife and sister-in-law, who lives near Pocono, to support his team, because that’s how the son of two-time NASCAR Xfinity Series champion Randy LaJoie was brought up.
“When we run four-straight top-20s we’re a team. When I make a mistake and get our primary car torn up, I’m going to be in it with the team trying to fix it. I’m not — a couple of guys I’ve seen have told me they really appreciate it. Well like, I get that they appreciate me going, but there was no other option for me but to stay. You know? I’m not going to leave. My wife was expecting me out to go to dinner, her sister lives up there and we had plans to go to a restaurant and I was like, ‘Honey, I can’t make it. Sorry.’ I’m not going to leave and eat a steak dinner while my guys are sitting here swapping a motor into the backup car. That’s just how I was raised and how I’m going to always do it.”
As LaJoie helped the team thrash to get the backup car ready to race, dinner finally arrived around 9PM, instantly the racecar driver knew where he could become most valuable for his team in the process.
“A friend of the team brought some food there at about 9 o’clock, and the garage closes at 10:30 or 11 or so,” Lajoie explained. “Dad always made it a priority if we were working old ARCA races or K&N races, he was in charge of feeding guys. I never understood why he would make such a priority to tell us to take a break and eat.”
LaJoie continued, “My guys are working their fingers to the bone to try to get that thing ready. When you’re in the zone, you don’t want to take five minutes, but it’s more important to probably eat so you get a little more energy so you don’t have any oversights with different things and all of that. I knew when some food was brought, those guys weren’t going to take five minutes to make a plate. So, I literally was just fixing my guys plates and getting the fork out, and putting the plate in front of their face like, ‘Bro, take three minutes, take a couple of bites and get back at it.’ I just try to figure out ways to be an asset for my guys for putting them behind the eight ball slightly.”
With the team fueled up, the backup car’s transition was completed.
However, going to the backup car meant a start at the rear of the pack on Sunday. Even with their primary car that was designed to run specifically at Pocono, finishing well would have been a tough ask. But the backup car was intended to be the team’s primary car at the 1.54-mile Atlanta Motor Speedway, so it definitely was trimmed out differently.
“Our backup car was going to be our Atlanta primary,” LaJoie said. “So it was a downforce body more so than a low drag body like our primary car was with the roof hatch and it was probably a little better served for Pocono.”
As Sunday’s race started, LaJoie rolled from the 36th starting spot, and right out of the gate, he noticed a big difference in his backup car.
“We were a little more draggy than we were on Saturday,” LaJoie detailed. “It was harder to maintain pace. It wasn’t as much of a benefit in dirty air as we had hoped it would be. It was just kind of draggy. We did the best we could. We struggled with a tight car all day. Worked on it and got it halfway decent.”
Just as it looked like the team had the car dialed in heading into the final run of the day, LaJoie encountered some damage that affected the aerodynamics on his race car.
“Then we knocked the nose off there with the chain-reaction with Cole [Custer], Erik [Jones] and myself and got a big hole in the nose when the stacked up,” LaJoie said. “I think that was right at the beginning of the last run.”
After the damage, LaJoie felt he had a car capable of hanging onto the edge of a top-30, but then, his crew chief Ryan Sparks intervened with a strategy that would help the No. 7 driver and team elevate their finishing position.
“Ryan had a good strategy and he was on me about saving fuel like a lot of other guys were. I think that was the difference between finishing probably 27th to finishing 23rd,” LaJoie stated. “We were just kind of nursing it home on that last run and luckily the strategy worked out. It’s not fun saving fuel, but obviously it worked for Kyle [Busch] and some of the guys up front. Sometimes you got to make due with what you’ve got and I feel like we did a good job at the end.”
LaJoie says he fully expects his team, on a good day, to perform around 22nd to 25th. However, even with the 36th-place finish factored in from Saturday’s race at Pocono, LaJoie and the No. 7 Spire Motorsports team are averaging a finish of 21.83 over their last six races. The Spire Motorsports team, which scored only three top-20 finishes all of 2020, has five through 19 races with LaJoie in 2021.
LaJoie chalks the recent success up to a number of factors, but it mainly comes down to execution.
“Realistically, we’re just executing better,” LaJoie said with confidence. “We have a different spotter in TJ Bell. He’s been good. Obviously, he’s an experienced guy, who knows what he’s doing. A little bit of it is luck. I don’t like to use luck, but you know I feel like now we are starting to understand who we are racing around and what strategies we can utilize to leap-frog some guys who may be on a different strategy.
“You know, I think it’s just a combination of figuring out the areas we needed to get better at and addressing it. And now, we’re starting to click off some good runs, but it’s still a grind and a battle every week. I think we’re all going to the race track, having some fun and not putting unrealistic expectations out in front of us. I think that running top-20 is over-producing realistic, but there is no reason we still can’t continue to do that on a regular basis.”
While LaJoie and the team put in a heroic effort to rally on Sunday to take their backup car from the rear of the field to finishing 23rd, he’s still a little disappointed in the finish. Even the slightest disappointment following a decent run after a ton of adversity is an indication that the driver and team are really starting to move their expectations into being more and more competitive as the season rolls on.
“Now, we know what we’re capable of and running better and better each week, I guess it’s okay when 23rd is discouraging,” LaJoie said.