Chase Elliott, NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver, has been indefinitely sidelined from competition in the NASCAR Cup Series, after fracturing his left tibia in a snowboarding accident on Friday.
The 27-year-old underwent a successful three-hour surgery on Friday to repair the fractured tibia and has now returned home to Georgia, where he will begin physical therapy on Monday.
Josh Berry served as a last-minute replacement for Elliott in Sunday’s Pennzoil 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, bringing the No. 9 NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet Camaro home in 29th, two laps behind race-winner William Byron.
Following the event, Jeff Andrews, President and General Manager of Hendrick Motorsports, said that plans for the No. 9 beyond this weekend haven’t been determined, and will likely be decided in the early part of Monday.
“Obviously, we’ve got to get together tomorrow morning and make some decisions pretty quick,” said Andrews. “We’ve obviously got to get a seat in the car, and then our haulers are planning on leaving late Tuesday afternoon, first part of the evening. We’ll be making that I would say early part of the day tomorrow.”
With no real indication of who will pilot the No. 9 as Elliott recovers from surgery in the coming weeks, there are a couple of “obvious” choices in Josh Berry and Justin Allgaier, who have served as interim drivers in the past.
Though, the major downfall to placing Berry or Allgaier in the No. 9 Chevrolet, is that despite being capable drivers, they generally lack experience in the NextGen car, which would shift the team’s focus to getting acclimated to a new driver.
That is why it makes complete and total sense to have the Hendrick Motorsports entry acquitted with a driver that has extensive experience in NASCAR’s seventh-generation racecar.
So, why not give Corey LaJoie an opportunity to get behind the wheel of the No. 9 Chevrolet Camaro in the coming weeks, starting at Phoenix Raceway?
LaJoie, 31, is already a full-time competitor in the NASCAR Cup Series, driving the No. 7 Chevrolet Camaro for Spire Motorsports – a team that has worked closely with Hendrick Motorsports in the Cup Series, as well as the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series.
While the pairing may seem somewhat unorthodox, LaJoie is sitting in the exact same position as Alex Bowman was, when he got tapped to be an interim driver for Dale Earnhardt, Jr. in 2016, which ultimately ended up turning into a full-time ride for Hendrick Motorsports.
Furthermore, LaJoie has had a spectacular start to the year with Spire Motorsports, grabbing finishes of 14th, 16th, and 20th thus far in 2023. In fact, the Charlotte, North Carolina native heads to Phoenix as one of eight drivers to score top-20s in all three events.
Who is to say that the perennial journeyman driver couldn’t come to Hendrick Motorsports and crank out some top-five and top-10 results in Elliott’s absence, while also putting additional value behind his name, and placing additional eyes – of fans and prospective partners – on him?
Of course, this would mean Spire Motorsports would need to find a replacement driver also, but with the lower ceiling of the No. 7 Chevrolet Camaro, you’d have to imagine that the pressure to learn on the fly, wouldn’t be as substantial.
At face value, the opportunity seems as though it would be beneficial for both driver and organization, especially when you consider the success LaJoie has had at some of the series’ upcoming tracks – most notably, Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Regardless of who ends up filling Elliott’s seat in the No. 9 Chevrolet Camaro, the opportunity to drive a race-winning entry in the NASCAR Cup Series is one that can launch a career to the next level, and bring notoriety to a driver’s name.
…and, should Elliott return to the NASCAR Cup Series, go on a tear, and eventually win the Owner’s Championship for Hendrick Motorsports, the driver who took the seat, will forever be cemented as an important part of one of the sport’s best-ever comebacks.