Race Weekend Central

The Underdog House: Corey LaJoie Turns Up the Heat at the Daytona 500

Top Dog: Corey LaJoie

NASCAR’s Super Bowl has no hidden secret of being a prime opportunity for an underdog to strike early. An underdog won two of the previous three Daytona 500s, and Austin Cindric’s lone career win to this point in the 2022 running can be marked as an upset as well.

Following 500 miles to kick off the 2024 season at Daytona International Speedway, Corey LaJoie nearly made it three underdog wins in the last four 500s at the 66th running of the Daytona 500 (Feb. 19), which was postponed to Monday due to rain.

Sporting a new partnership with Chili’s, which included a humorous commercial during the race, LaJoie came up three spots short finishing in fourth.

See also
Spin Through Grass Foils Daytona 500 Dreams for Ross Chastain, Austin Cindric

LaJoie cut his starting position in half in stage one, finishing the stage in 14th after starting 29th. He remained in the front half of the field to conclude a tense yet calamity-free second stage in 11th.

In the final stage, the 32-year-old pulled his gloves tighter and went to work. The No. 7 stormed to the front, with LaJoie right in the thick of the lead battle, including taking the lead on lap 149.

The Charlotte, N.C. native got shuffled out in the closing stages of the event, but it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. That blessing? Dodging a massive 18-car pileup on lap 192.

A much thinner field allowed for LaJoie to restart in fifth with four laps to go. As the field came to the white flag, LaJoie bobbed out of line to get around Cindric for second place. Cindric threw a block, got loose and made contact with Ross Chastain, bringing out the race-ending caution and leaving LaJoie just short of his first career win.

The red hot chili pepper on LaJoie’s car was not the only spicy display after the race, as Cindric and LaJoie each had some words for each other in their post-race interviews.

Cindric told Frontstretch‘s Stephen Stumpf and other reporters “[LaJoie] finished fourth. Congrats! He tried to fit a car where there wasn’t a car.”

LaJoie responded in an interview with FOX Sports’ Bob Pockrass, firing back with “I’ve seen him do a lot of dumb things too, and we’re not friends.”

Tempers aside, LaJoie was elated with his result, and he had every right to be. With two of his prior three top fives coming at Atlanta Motor Speedway, and the other coming at Talladega Superspeedway, the fourth-place run was his best Daytona 500 showing.

However, this one feels different. With Spire Motorsports adding more resources over the past year, plus sporting a new-look lineup with Carson Hocevar and Zane Smith, optimism should be running high for LaJoie as he looks to back up a career-year in 2023.

How Does it Compare?

Starting this weekend, we will look at the top underdog finisher from the Cup race and compare it to the best underdog run at a particular track (or race) that is selected.

While fourth is a strong showing for LaJoie and Spire, the aforementioned upsets in the 500 are not necessarily rare. In recent decades, Trevor Bayne’s 2011 Cinderella story is still one of the greatest upsets in NASCAR history. Michael McDowell’s 2021 victory was his first career Cup triumph and just the second for Front Row Motorsports. Then there is Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s feat a year ago, which was the second win for JTG-Daugherty Racing.

LaJoie’s performance is key to setting the tone for the season, and it could lead to additional chances to make underdog history in the future.

See also
Daytona 500 Upset Winners Throughout the Years

Notable Underdog Runs

AJ Allmendinger’s return to the NASCAR Xfinity Series still has some fans scratching their heads, but that shouldn’t overshadow his sixth-place result to kick off his part-time Cup slate with Kaulig Racing in 2024. Allmendinger fell a lap down during the first green-flag pit stop cycle, but he earned the free pass at the conclusion of stage one.

Perhaps Allmendinger’s best highlight from the race was when he drove to the lead on lap 140 with teammate Daniel Hemric in tow. Allmendinger led nine laps before the final set of green flag stops. He too was able to mostly dodge The Big One, and the 42-year-old diced it up at the front on the final restart before settling for sixth. It is his fourth consecutive top 10 in the Great American Race.

The new-look Legacy Motor Club had an eventful start to 2024. Team co-owner Jimmie Johnson was caught up in the lap 5 crash, heavily setting him back for the rest of the evening.

In his return to Cup, John Hunter Nemechek didn’t optimally start the 500. On lap 5, he received a push from Brad Keselowski, causing him to lose control and slide into Harrison Burton, sparking a seven-car crash. Then, Nemechek ran into Josh Berry on pit road during stage two, spinning Berry out. However, Legacy’s newest driver avoided the storm at the end to officially mark his Cup return with a seventh-place finish.

Meanwhile, Erik Jones, who is back under the Toyota banner with Legacy’s manufacturer switch, had a fairly quiet race in the first half. Yet, when the late stages approached, the 2018 Daytona summer race winner had his No. 43 in the fight.

When The Big One occurred with nine laps left, Jones was running just outside the top 10. He was collected in the crash, suffering minor damage to the left-front fender. However, the Byron, Mich. native recovered to score an eighth-place result.

Smith’s second 500 appearance was rather quiet, yet smooth; a solid day for a rookie. The 24-year-old spent most of the race doing exactly what he needed to: learning. He didn’t stick his nose in the wrong places, kept the car clean and came away with a top 15 in 13th. The reward for Smith was that he was the top-finishing rookie in a freshman class full of promise.

Hemric’s return to Cup was solid overall. His week started on the wrong foot after he was wrecked in his Bluegreen Vacations Duel. Despite that forcing him to a backup car, Hemric and the No. 31 team stayed out following the first caution. He kept his No. 31 Cirkul Chevrolet at the front for most of the first stage before finally having to pit later in the stage.

There were several points where Hemric was shuffled to the back, yet he charged forward and kept himself in contention time after time again, a promising sign for the 33-year-old. He nearly snuck through The Big One at the end before his nose unfortunately met Ty Gibbs’ door. Still, Hemric wrapped up his third start in the 500 with a respectable 16th-place showing.

See also
A Big Year Lies Ahead for 'Old School Guy' Josh Williams

What They’re Saying

LaJoie (third):

Allmendinger: “We had an up and down night but everyone at Kaulig Racing did a great job this weekend. We had great pit stops, great strategy and we had a car that could hang up there. We gave ourselves a shot at it and that’s all we can do. It’s the biggest race we have in the sport and I’m really proud of everyone’s effort this week.”

Jones (eighth):

Hemric (16th): “I’m proud of the fight this No. 31 Cirkul team showed from the start of the weekend getting our backup car ready to race […]  I thought it was going to workout there at the end, but unfortunately we got some nose damage we couldn’t avoid with about 10 to go. Not quite the finish we wanted, but I’m looking forward to what’s to come with this team.”

Stenhouse:

Kaz Grala (38th):

Burton (39th) and Hocevar (40th):

Who’s Really the Top Dog?

Throughout the season, we will be keeping track of who the top underdog finishers are, keeping an Olympic-like points system. The driver who earns gold will receive five points, silver earns three points, and bronze earns one point.

Daytona 500 Results

Gold – LaJoie; Silver – Allmendinger; Bronze – Nemechek

Small Team Scheme of the Week

LaJoie’s partnership with Chili’s kicked off with a primary scheme in the Great American Race promoting the chain restaurants #CatchaRita. The bright red and green colors popped out on track, with the famous chili pepper logo completing the look for a scheme that certainly brought the heat to the weekend.

About the author

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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DoninAjax

Like I have said about LaJoie for years, he will be get back to his normal finishes at non-restrictor plate events. He does knock a lot of cars out of the way.

Bill W.

JHN will give him a run for knocking out car based on both the Cup and Infinity races at Daytona.

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