Top Dog: Corey LaJoie
Reconfigurations can bring out the best in drivers, the worst in drivers and everything in between. Look at Phoenix Raceway for example. Ever since the start/finish was moved just off the exit of turns 3 and 4 following the 2018 spring race, nine-time Phoenix winner Kevin Harvick has not returned to victory lane since.
On the opposite side of that, some drivers take well to a reconfiguration. That can be said for Corey LaJoie, who earned another top five in his third race at the reconfigured Atlanta Motor Speedway in Sunday’s (March 19) Ambetter Health 400. In fact, his fourth-place finish was a new career-best, topping his previous high of fifth in this race a year ago.
Just as we have seen with schools like Princeton University and Fairleigh-Dickinson University in the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament the past week (don’t worry, they broke my bracket too), LaJoie nearly pulled off a Cinderella upset in both Atlanta races last season. He recovered from a spin in the spring race to finish fifth, and he was in contention for the win in the summer race until he was swept up in a crash on the final lap.
Jumping to the present, LaJoie was a sneaky focus all Sunday, starting in 31st but quickly becoming a contender. The No. 7 slowly rose up the leaderboard and by the end of stage two, LaJoie had earned a stage point with a 10th-place result.
During the closing laps, LaJoie found himself inside the top 10. However, he was not content with running in the middle of that group. As the field entered turn 3 with two laps to go, LaJoie dove to the inside of Denny Hamlin to make it three-wide for fourth. What was most impressive is that he had little help on the bottom for the final lap, yet he stayed right in the mix. Just watch the No. 7 on the final lap:
The Charlotte, N.C. native would come up just short, but he served the NASCAR world a notice.
“It feels great … fourth is great for our Celsius Camaro and our small team,” LaJoie told FOX Sports about his showing. “We started off the year with the West Coast swing, really solid, and to get another career best here …
“I don’t show up and expect to win a race. You just have to keep putting yourself in these positions like Joey [Logano]. It’s why he wins all of the time, because he’s up front all the time. As I get myself some more confidence racing around these guys, these guys see me up there racing with them, our day is going to come.”
It may have seemed like an impossible feat a year ago given Spire Motorsports’ resources, but a breakthrough win is not out of the cards this year, especially with what we have seen with the Next Gen car.
After five races, LaJoie sits in 14th in points. Obviously, there is a lot of season left, but being in that position after five events is a strong accomplishment for this team.
It may be too early to speculate about silly season right now, but with some quality seats potentially open, keep an eye on what LaJoie can do this season.
After weeks of tough circumstances for Noah Gragson, the rookie of the year contender finally earned a solid finish in 12th. It didn’t come easy, however. Gragson bounced up and down the leaderboard, making contact with another car and with the wall in the final stage. However, the car was not noticeably affected and Gragson avoided a massive pileup to put himself in contention. He was able to keep the No. 42 in the top 15 to earn his best finish of the season.
Todd Gilliland also earned his best finish of the season with a 15th-place run. It’s a solid result for Gilliland, who was out of the No. 38 for the first time last week at Phoenix Raceway while Zane Smith piloted the ride. Gilliland drove for Rick Ware Racing and then returned to FRM in style.
The second-year driver was mostly quiet throughout the race, emerging when it mattered most. Despite also making contact with the wall in the final stage, the No. 38 got into the top 10 before eventually settling for a top 15. Gilliland will be one to keep an eye on next week at Circuit of the Americas, as he is a NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series winner at the track and a good road-course racer overall.
Speaking of good road racers, AJ Allmendinger once again pulled off a top 20. Allmendinger was involved in the 10-car accident on lap 190, suffering minor nose damage in the crash. Despite some handling issues, Allmendinger kept the No. 16 in the hunt, even cracking the top 10 at one point in the final stage. When the checkered flag flew, it was the No. 16 in 16th. As bumpy of a start as it has been for the 41-year-old, he has opened the year with four top 20s in five races.
Underdogs Who Built the Sport
Celebrating NASCAR’s 75th anniversary, we take a look at a more recent underdog in the sport’s history.
Since the series hit Atlanta this weekend, how about an underdog feature on a Georgia-born driver? Thrust into the spotlight at a young age, David Ragan had a rollercoaster career.
Son of former Cup driver Ken Ragan, the Unadilla, Ga. native found early success in bandoleros, legends cars and late models. That led to an early start in NASCAR, with starts across the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series and NASCAR Xfinity Series as well as appearances in the ARCA Menards Series.
After an ARCA win in 2005, Ragan split time between NCWTS and NXS with RFK Racing. With Mark Martin set to retire from full-time racing following 2006, Ragan was tapped as his successor to drive the iconic No. 6 in the NASCAR Cup Series. He made his Cup debut during that 2006 season with Roush in the No. 06 car at Dover Motor Speedway.
After finishing second in the rookie standings in 2007, Ragan recorded his best points finish in 2008, finishing 13th with six top fives and 14 top 10s. He remained with Roush for three more seasons but could never live up to the prestige of the team or match the success of his teammates. However, he would score his first career win in the 2011 summer race at Daytona International Speedway in an emotional breakthrough victory.
In 2012, he joined Front Row Motorsports, owned by Bob Jenkins. One year later, he rewarded Jenkins by not only earning FRM its first career Cup win at Talladega Superspeedway, but by delivering a 1-2 finish for the organization with help from teammate David Gilliland. The two paired up on a green-white-checkered restart, drove through the middle of the pack and went by Carl Edwards to score the 1-2 result and secure the ‘David and Goliath’ outcome.
2015 was a unique season for Ragan, who got two more good opportunities by substituting for both Kyle Busch and Brian Vickers that season. After driving for BK Racing in 2016, Ragan returned to FRM from 2017 to 2019 before retiring from full-time competition. Since then, he has made six starts between FRM and Rick Ware Racing and now serves as an analyst on FOX Sport’s NASCAR Race Hub.
Ragan may not have had the fruitful career some expected, but he also served an important role on underdog teams by bringing them into the spotlight. Overall, he recorded two wins, 16 top fives, 43 top 10s and two NASCAR Xfinity Series wins.
What They’re Saying
Gragson (12th): “It was a smooth, solid day for the No. 42 Sunseeker Resorts Chevy team. I felt pretty competitive running in the top 10 or 15 throughout the race. Really felt like we had a decent shot, we were just a little too far back there at the end to really make anything happen. But solid execution and solid job by everyone on the No. 42 LEGACY MOTOR CLUB Chevy team.”
Allmendinger (16th): “I thought we made the best of it. We got a little bit of damage in one of the wrecks and that probably didn’t help our speed, but we were just lacking speed in general which made it tough for us to make moves and we kinda got stuck. Pit stops were really good, strategy was really good.
“We did everything right and the car handled well, just got stuck there in pack racing and we didn’t have a lot of raw speed in the car. We just tried to make the best there with what we had, and we got out with a clean racecar.”
Small Team Scheme of the Week
After sponsoring the team in several races last season, Blaster returned to Live Fast Motorsports. The team debuted a new look to the No. 78 Ford with a red-and-orange scheme that was hard to miss on the track. Unfortunately, the day came to an end before the race was over due to the lap 190 crash.
About the author
Luken Glover arrived on the Frontstretch scene in 2020. He has been an avid NASCAR fan for the majority of his life, following in the footsteps of his grandfather, who used to help former team owner Junie Donlavey in his garage. Glover covers news for the site and took over "The Underdog House" column in 2021. In addition to being a college junior, his hobbies include volunteering at church, playing basketball and tennis, racing go-karts, and helping at his high school alma mater.
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