Race Weekend Central

The Underdog House: Corey LaJoie, Cup Underdogs Survive Attrition at Dover

Top Dog: Corey LaJoie

Long green flag runs, you say? That can only spell disaster for an underdog.

Dover Motor Speedway has produced plenty of entertainment in its 54 years of existence. But one characteristic in several races has been the length of long, strenuous green-flag runs.

While there were multiple cautions for cause in the rain-caused postponed edition on May 1 for the NASCAR Cup Series, that characteristic appeared again throughout the race, with the longest run spanning nearly 130 laps.

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The Big 6: Questions Answered After Martin Truex Jr. Pulled A Monster Out of His Hat at Dover

However, while underdogs typically struggle to even crack the top 20 in such races, that was not the case on Monday. In fact, Corey LaJoie‘s No. 7 team, who found themselves trapped in races with long runs in previous years, topped the underdogs with a 14th-place run.

LaJoie made an impressive climb to that result from the beginning, starting 27th after qualifying was rained out (shocking!) on Saturday. Mired outside the top 20 for the first 80 laps, crew chief Ryan Sparks called for two tires on lap 86 to get the No. 7 track position.

While LaJoie could not stay within the top 10, the strategy worked out tremendously for him, landing a 13th-place stage one finish.

Stage two would be the real test to see where the 31-year-old would stack up, as the stage went caution-free. He passed it with flying colors, holding serve with a stage two result of 14th.

Former champions such as Joey Logano and Kyle Busch, who had sustained nose damage in an earlier crash, struggled to find pace throughout the race, as well as many Cup winners. However, LaJoie withstood the longevity of the final stage to keep himself in the top 15, despite going a lap down. That was enough to land him a strong top-15 result – his first since Circuit of the Americas.

It continues a wave of improvement from LaJoie, who sits 22nd in points after Dover.

Where does that speed stem from? He told me at Martinsville Speedway that it’s a continued improvement from the chemistry his team has found and the resources that have helped lift this team from being a backmarker to being a top-20 contender.

Who Impressed

It certainly wasn’t as ecstatic of a finish as last year’s Dover runner-up from Ricky Stenhouse Jr., but don’t let a 15th-place finish fool you. Prior to that run a year ago, he had one top 10 and nine finishes of 21st or worse. This go around? He has two top fives, four top 10s, and seven top 15s within the first 11 races. That is a stark improvement from a year ago for the JTG-Daugherty Racing driver.

Stenhouse ran inside the top 10 for almost the entire first stage, finishing in 10th. From there, his No. 47 struggled with being too tight in traffic, dropping him outside the top 15 and putting him one lap down for most of the race. However, a caution with 14 laps remaining allowed the 35-year-old to get the wave around, which propelled him to the 15th-place showing. Stenhouse has nearly cut his points position in half from where he was after 11 races a year ago. He sits 14th currently after sitting 27th after Dover in 2022.

Erik Jones seems to have finally found a breath of fresh air after a deflating start to the season. Last year’s Darlington fall winner faded back to 20th after starting 11th but regained his rhythm throughout the race. While Jones was unable to crack the top 10, it was a clean sweep of 16s for That Jones Boy, who finished stage one, stage two and the race in 16th after a fairly quiet race. Outside of the superspeedways and the Bristol Motor Speedway dirt race, it is Jones’ best finish of the season. However, his team ran into a bit of a problem post-race.

Another driver who needed a solid race after a somewhat tough start was AJ Allmendinger. The Dinger finished his part-time stint in 2022 with Kaulig Racing by recording eight top 10s in 18 starts, including six in a row at one point.

That has not been the case in 2023, as Allmendinger has one top 10 and one top 15 thus far. But there’s still a lot of the season left, and the 41-year-old racked off another top 20 at Dover. Like the underdogs mentioned above, Allmendinger ran around his 18th-place finishing spot for most of the race. The top 20 is his sixth of the season.

Harrison Burton recovered from what could have been a disaster late in the race to finish in 20th. As he came to make a green flag stop on lap 328, Burton spun behind eventual race winner Martin Truex Jr. However, Burton gathered it up quickly, and thanks to drivers being multiple laps down, he was able to finish in the top 20. It is Burton’s fourth top 20 of the year.

Underdogs Who Built the Sport

As we opened the season on important underdog figures in NASCAR’s 75 years, I spotlighted someone whose career is special to me: Junie Donlavey. This week, we look at a driver who was a beneficiary of Mr. Donlavey as Ken Schrader referred to him as.

Jody Ridley is a name you may not have heard of, but when you look at the list of drivers who have won a Cup race, his name appears on that list.

The date was May 17, 1981, and Ridley was strapped into Donlavey’s No. 90 Ford at Dover. He started the race in 11th, quickly running into adversity after making contact with Ron Bouchard.

As Ridley battled to climb back up the leaderboard, the race swapped hands between David Pearson, Neil Bonnett and Cale Yarborough. Pearson lost an engine after 57 laps, handing the lead to a dominant Bonnett. The Wood Brothers Racing driver led a bush-whacking 404 laps, seemingly leaving the potential race winner without a doubt. But on lap 460, he too fell victim to an engine issue. This time, Yarborough took his turn out front and appeared to be on his way to victory. But just 19 laps later, his engine went south and he fell out of the race.

That put the lead and eventual win in the lap of Ridley, who won the game of survival to record both his and Donlavey Racing’s lone Cup win.

Ridley’s lack of wins should not be overlooked. Now 80 years old, he won the 1985 Snowball Derby and earned several All Pro Series titles. In Cup, he recorded 56 top 10s in 139 starts and had a pair of top 10 points finishes in 1980 and 1981, including finishing fifth that same year he won at Dover.

What They’re Saying

Allmendinger (18th): “We fired off pretty good today. I was happy with the balance. We were a little tight on exit of the corners in traffic, but that’s to be expected. As the track changed, we started to lose rear grip and by the end of the first stage we were so loose I was hardly hanging on. We made some adjustments and tried to adapt with the track. By the end, we fired off better each run but lost rear grip so quick. We still have some work to do, but I felt like today was a step in the right direction.”

Justin Haley (23rd): “We showed a lot of promise early on in our No. 31 LeafFilter Gutter Protection Camaro ZL1. We fired off so well and had a ton of speed. Unfortunately, as the track built up rubber and I got in dirty air, we just couldn’t find the grip we needed. The first five laps on tires we would be so good, but then we would lose grip and get super free. By the end of the race, I felt like we had improved and learned so much — we just couldn’t get the track position back. We will keep focusing to get back where we need to be starting next week in Kansas.”

Noah Gragson (34th): “I don’t know what happened. I tried to get to the top and search for clean air. It was a mistake on my part. The air was tricky in the back of the pack. It was tight and it got loose – I don’t know, I need to go back and look at it. It’s just been a disappointing year overall. I’m thankful for all of the guys’ efforts on our No. 42 LEGACY MOTOR CLUB team, we’ll take our Sunseeker Resorts Chevy off to Kansas next week and move on from here.”

Brennan Poole (33rd):

Ty Dillon (36th):

See also
Thinkin' Out Loud at Dover: For Ross Chastain, When Does 'I'm Sorry' Not Be Enough?

Small Team Scheme of the Week

Front Row Motorsports has knocked it out of the park with some schemes this year, and this is one that makes a lot of people want to go out and celebrate the race with a root beer float! Michael McDowell had A&W return to his car for their 2023 debut, sporting the classic, wooden brown look with the white and orange colors. It is a simple, yet classy look that the No. 34 carried to a 22nd-place finish.

About the author

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Luken Glover joined the Frontstretch team in 2020 as a contributor, furthering a love for racing that traces back to his earliest memories. Glover inherited his passion for racing from his grandfather, who used to help former NASCAR team owner Junie Donlavey in his Richmond, Va. garage. A 2023 graduate from the University of the Cumberlands, Glover is the author of "The Underdog House," contributes to commentary pieces, and does occasional at-track reporting. Additionally, Glover enjoys working in ministry, coaching basketball, playing sports, and karting.

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