There’s just something about Corey LaJoie and this newly reconfigured Atlanta Motor Speedway. The driver of the No. 7 Spire Motorsports Chevrolet Camaro always finds himself rising to the occasion at the 1.54-mile superspeedway. Sunday, in the Ambetter Health 400, he was once again in the mix in the closing laps, and he even was the driver who initiated the Herculean push that led to Joey Logano going to victory lane.
While he ultimately came up just a little short for the third time in as many tries at the newly configured oval, LaJoie scooted over the finish line in fourth place, which marks his new career-best finish, besting his fifth-place run in this event a season ago.
Sure, it isn’t the win that LaJoie certainly hopes and believes is coming someday soon, but at the end of the day, LaJoie is pleased that his team is hitting on all cylinders, and he’s not sure if there was anything else that he or his team could have done that would have changed the outcome.
“I don’t think we could have done better,” LaJoie said. “I don’t think there is anything we could have done differently. Our green flag sequence, I think was a net positive. Got a Stage Point there.”
LaJoie could only think of one critique of his moves from behind the wheel in the closing laps, and that was his decision to not move down into the front position of the bottom lane with under 20 laps to go.
“The only thing I could have done differently, I look back on, is just cover that bottom lane when I had the opportunity to with like 18 [laps] to go,” LaJoie explained. “I just didn’t anticipate that bottom being as strong and as long as it lasted. I thought they were going to give up a bit, but they were able to maintain down there, and if I would have covered that, I would have been leading that line and who knows what would have happened.”
Would of, could of, should of. He didn’t. But it was another shot, and at the end of the day in racing, and especially superspeedway racing, the best you can do on any given race day is put yourself in a position to win.
Sunday’s race was certainly a moral victory for the underdog racer.
“Oh hell yeah there are moral victories,” LaJoie stated. “When you’re getting your pee-pee smashed 35 weekends out of the year, here’s an opportunity where you can win, and when you can run fourth, there are so many good things wrapped up in that.”
LaJoie was proud of the run, and he was not in the mood to sulk about a lost opportunity. He’s seen too many others do that same thing over the years. Instead, LaJoie chooses to be appreciative of his opportunities.
“I think a lot of drivers — I don’t know why — have this mindset or this attitude after the race of like second sucks,” LaJoie explained. “I don’t know what the podium was for the F1 race, but I’m sure the guy second was popping champagne and having a blast. For me, it’s huge. And for my team, it’s huge. I’m going to be proud of my guys, I’m going to be proud of our effort.”
While LaJoie prides himself on being the little guy, who constantly stacks pennies as he continues to climb the ladder in the sport, he has climbed several rungs of the ladder in the opening five races of the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series season. After Atlanta, LaJoie has moved into the 14th position in the NASCAR Cup Series championship standings, which, if you’re keeping score at home, would put him inside the Playoffs.
LaJoie stopped short of saying he and his team are slam dunks to point their way into the Playoffs, but he certainly thinks he has several opportunities left in the regular season to steal a win and work his way into the Playoffs, regardless of how the points look.
“Yeah, [the next Atlanta] is circled. Like our owner Jeff Dickerson said today, it’s like you come in here and you run well both races, you can’t come in here thinking this place owes you something,” LaJoie said. “It owes you nothing. These guys don’t owe you anything. These guys are professionals and every time you line up against them they want to kill you. That’s why I want to kill them too.
“We’re going to go to Talladega, and we’re going to go back to Atlanta and we’re going to have another shot at Daytona to like you said, pull off a David versus 35 Goliaths and steal a place in these Playoffs.”
While the fourth-place effort is a great finish for LaJoie and the No. 7 team, the driver keeps learning new tricks every time he races at superspeedway events. Those new tricks may very well put him in a position to score a win in one of these races someday, but he says the confidence and respect he is earning from his competitors by being in the mix more often will go even further.
“At the end of the day, I think the biggest thing is my competitors seeing me up there when the pay window is open and being the one they choose to go with versus not like they used to,” LaJoie explained. “Anytime the [No.] 7 was up there, it was a race to see who would shuck him first. As guys start to see me, get comfortable with me being up there and being a contender, I think it’ll start bouncing our way a little more often.”
While the focus is LaJoie’s solid efforts at Atlanta, it is worth noting that the North Carolina native has become a much more well-rounded driver in the early portion of the 2023 season. In five races, LaJoie has already scored four top-20 finishes, and he has an average finish of 16.0, and the opening five races of the season have shown a diverse mix of tracks.
Next up for LaJoie is Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas. If he and the No. 7 team can keep this impressive start of the season going through that race, I think it’s going to be harder and harder for people to not believe that LaJoie can find a spot in the Playoffs if everything shakes out right.