Did You Notice? … The opportunity in front of Corey LaJoie this weekend at World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway?
LaJoie was named the replacement driver for Chase Elliott in the No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet after Elliott was suspended a race for openly retaliating against Denny Hamlin on track at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
I’m not here to be the 3,576th hot take on that suspension; go here or here on Frontstretch for that. What I think shouldn’t get overlooked is the B-side to this whole equation: LaJoie getting an opportunity to prove himself after years of toiling as the underdog.
Let’s face it; LaJoie’s spent a career performing as the Cinderella whose glass slippers were bought at the dollar store. After three wins in five starts at the ARCA Menards Series level way back in 2013, he’s spent the next decade or so toiling with NASCAR teams who often struggle to get enough sponsorship to keep competing.
His first full-time Cup effort, BK Racing in 2017, went bankrupt. His second team, a reboot of TriStar Motorsports, folded after one full-time season. His third team, Go Fas Racing, had its owner retire after two years filled with patchwork sponsorship.
Since then, LaJoie has found a home of sorts as the primary driver for Spire Motorsports. But the Chevy team was notorious for shoestring budgets during the pre-COVID-19 era, saving their ammunition for the parity offered by the sport’s new Next Gen chassis. It meant LaJoie suffered through many races where used horsepower and decrepit equipment left him an automatic to be the first car lapped.
Even now, despite Spire becoming more competitive in the Next Gen era, LaJoie has a ceiling with how he can perform with its No. 7. In 214 career Cup starts, he’s got just six top-10 finishes, all of them on the pack-racing tracks that erase any advantage for the top-tier teams.
LaJoie has spent his career focused on those opportunities, nearly winning at Atlanta Motor Speedway last July before a wipeout on the white-flag lap. Off track, he’s remained relevant as one of the more relatable drivers with the media, armed with a successful podcast (Stacking Pennies) before Denny Hamlin even knew what a podcast was. Ironically, LaJoie argued against Elliott’s suspension on SIRIUS XM Radio just a few hours before he was named the driver of the No. 9.
Overall, LaJoie presents himself as a man who seems content with his opportunities given. It’s someone who’s made the most of what he has while waiting patiently for that big break.
It appears his moment has finally come with a chance to drive for the New York Yankees of NASCAR. We’ve just seen what Josh Berry accomplished in that No. 9 just this year: a runner-up finish at Richmond Raceway along with two other top-10 performances in five starts. Now, at age 32, he’s poised to potentially replace Kevin Harvick at Stewart-Haas Racing in 2024.
LaJoie, at age 31, is sitting right behind Berry, armed with the knowledge his window is closing. Mid-2023 marks a unique opportunity within the NASCAR landscape with a number of top-tier rides potentially open: Harvick, Aric Almirola, and Martin Truex Jr. could all be poised to retire from full-time competition.
With the team he’s substituting for a prime example (HMS drivers are all signed through 2025), opportunities like these don’t come around very often. Especially when we’re talking about a 30-something veteran six years in when 24-year-old Noah Gragson is borderline considered an “old man” as a Cup rookie.
The other side to the Berry equation, of course, can be drivers like Justin Allgaier. The capable NASCAR Xfinity Series veteran filled in one time during Jimmie Johnson’s final season with HMS (2020). But a weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway that started with such promise — Allgaier qualified fourth — ended with a 37th-place DNF just 17 laps into the race.
Allgaier hasn’t been looked at for a top-tier Cup ride since.
Can LaJoie nail his chance? Elliott and HMS were surprisingly mediocre at Gateway last season; the organization failed to lead a lap, and all four of its drivers finished outside the top 10. LaJoie has an incomplete on his own report card, retiring with engine failure just 72 laps into that race.
So if there’s any track configuration where it could happen for LaJoie, it would be this one. Expect him to race aggressively and understand the gravity of what a top five or even a win would do for his career. And I wouldn’t count him out of victory lane, especially with a track so new on the NASCAR circuit no one team or driver truly has an edge.
In closing, let’s not forget a potential bizarre twist: LaJoie winning in the No. 9 and that victory keeping Elliott out of the playoffs. Chase was making up significant ground in the points, but a seventh start missed makes the climb that much more difficult, either into the top 16 or past any other drivers with a victory (should he find a way to win a race). 16 or 17 winners this season is still a possibility (we’re at 10 now and LaJoie would make 11) and you just never know.
Did You Notice? … Front Row Motorsports has a game of driver musical chairs on its hands? After reigning NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series champion Zane Smith was rewarded with a part-time ride in the No. 38 Ford, conventional wisdom was Todd Gilliland would be the odd man out. And Smith has lived up to expectations, scoring a 10th-place finish in Monday’s (May 29) Coca-Cola 600. In just four Cup races directly associated with FRM, Smith already has two top 15s, a +24 position differential and three laps led.
But Gilliland, now with his Cup career on the line, has been much improved during his sophomore season. Four top-11 finishes in 14 races is better than it seems; two starts were throwaway races driving woefully underfunded equipment with Rick Ware Racing. His average finish is up three positions (from 23.2 to 20.2), and he sits 24th in points, just 52 behind the final playoff spot held by Alex Bowman. Pretty good for a driver who turned 23 years old this month, right?
Does Gilliland’s success suddenly make Michael McDowell vulnerable? The 2021 Daytona 500 winner, McDowell’s coming off his best season in Cup (and for FRM), posting a career-best 12 top-10 finishes and slotting in 23rd in the point standings. But sources tell me McDowell considered retirement this past offseason after crew chief Blake Harris left for Bowman’s team; the concern was having to start from scratch at age 38 with someone new.
Indeed, the rebuild with replacement Travis Peterson has gone slower than expected; McDowell has just one top-10 finish thus far, only 11 laps led and sits just six points ahead of Gilliland. It hasn’t helped that McDowell’s best track type, pack racing, has arguably produced his worst performances: zero top-20 finishes and zero laps led in three tries.
McDowell is one of the sport’s most respected drivers, both on the racetrack and off it. Will FRM be willing to part with a veteran leader? For the answer, look back at Todd’s father, David, who wound up dumped after the 2015 season in favor of a young Chris Buescher and more sponsorship money. Gilliland lasted six years with the team.
Guess what season McDowell is in with FRM? His sixth. Now, it’s conceivable this organization could expand back into a three-car operation; perhaps a charter comes available through Ware, the No. 78 of Live Fast Motorsports or some other team TBD. But the most likely option is remaining a two-car operation come 2024.
That means someone has to wind up displaced. If I’m McDowell, I’d be updating resumes just in case.
Did You Notice? … Quick hits before taking off …
- With Blaney’s Cup victory, the focus at Team Penske must shift toward the slumping Austin Cindric. His winless streak is now up to 49 races and shows no signs of stopping, the sophomore posting only six lead-lap finishes and seven laps led. It feels like the same lack of confidence brewing there that left Blaney down for the count for far too long.
- Can anyone remember the last time Aric Almirola showed that much emotion in public? Bubba Wallace must have given one hell of a middle finger.
About the author
The author of Did You Notice? (Wednesdays) Tom spends his time overseeing Frontstretch’s 40+ staff members as its majority owner and Editor-in-Chief. Based outside Philadelphia, Bowles is a two-time Emmy winner in NASCAR television and has worked in racing production with FOX, TNT, and ESPN while appearing on-air for SIRIUS XM Radio and FOX Sports 1's former show, the Crowd Goes Wild. He most recently consulted with SRX Racing, helping manage cutting-edge technology and graphics that appeared on their CBS broadcasts during 2021 and 2022.
You can find Tom’s writing here, at CBSSports.com and Athlonsports.com, where he’s been an editorial consultant for the annual racing magazine for 15 years.
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