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Up to Speed: More Opportunity and More Pressure for Corey LaJoie

When compared to his last few seasons in the NASCAR Cup Series, 2024 does not look different for Corey LaJoie at first glance.

He is once again competing with Spire Motorsports in the No. 7 car and he will be a longshot to win a race or qualify for the playoffs. Yet even the early weeks of this season must feel different for LaJoie due to the changes around the organization.

He has a pair of new teammates in Carson Hocevar and Zane Smith. Both rookies are among NASCAR’s biggest prospects and their arrival at Spire signals a change in philosophy for the organization. Quite suddenly, Spire has become a serious multi-car team.

Ever since LaJoie joined the team in 2021 Spire has fielded two cars regularly, though not with the same level of preparation. LaJoie in the No. 7 has been the team’s primary driver. The No. 77 was a mechanism for holding onto the team’s other charter and providing a little extra funding for the No. 7.

Until Ty Dillon drove the full season in the No. 77 a year ago, the car was typically a pay-to-play ride with a cavalcade of drivers.

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However, Spire Motorsports had a growth spurt during the offseason.

The team purchased Live Fast Motorsports’ charter, allowing it to expand to a three-car operation and field Smith in the No. 71 on load from Trackhouse Racing. Spire also shored up its NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series team by purchasing Kyle Busch Motorsports and moving its whole organization into the former KBM shop. The Truck Series effort has already paid off handsomely with Kyle Busch winning at Atlanta Motor Speedway and Rajah Caruth scoring his first win at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on March 1.

Bringing drivers like Hocevar and Smith into the fold feels like part of a gameplan for a team that wants to be more competitive. Although Hocevar has developed an unfortunate reputation for being reckless, no one who watched him compete in the Truck Series last year would question his speed. He also made several starts in the Cup Series late last season with Legacy Motor Club and showed good pace with a team that had struggled mightily up to that point. Given the potential that he’s shown, it is highly doubtful that Spire was Hocevar’s only option for 2024.

Why would Hocevar agree to drive the No. 77 if all the team wanted was a placeholder?

Meanwhile, Smith is a nine-time winner in the Truck Series and the 2022 champion. He was rumored to be considered for several Cup Series rides before signing a contract with Trackhouse. Yet without a charter for a third car, Trackhouse decided to farm out Smith to Spire for 2024. The plan is to bring Smith over to Trackhouse for 2025, but it seems that the details about what car he would drive or where the new charter would come from have not been worked out.

For the time being, Smith is functionally a Spire driver.

LaJoie is in the middle of all these changes, and it all sounds good on paper. He is the most experienced driver on a true multi-car team that, while growing, does not come with sky-high expectations. If LaJoie gets more than even a handful of top 10s in 2024, he will have his best Cup Series season and demonstrate that he and Spire are making progress.

However, what if LaJoie’s younger and much less experienced teammates outperform him this season? It is not a likely outcome when you consider that LaJoie has run most of the Cup Series races over the last seven years, and the days of rookies taking NASCAR’s highest level by storm died in the first decade of the 2000s. Yet Hocevar and Smith have something that LaJoie does not – wins in one of NASCAR’s three national touring series. If they show more speed and greater potential for winning races, how can Spire be confident that LaJoie is the driver to lead their growing team?

To be fair to LaJoie, he has spent very little time in the upper levels of NASCAR driving equipment that is capable of winning races. In fact, his status as an underdog has become a major part of his identity in the Cup Series. Throughout his career, LaJoie has been vocal that, if given the right opportunity, he will prove that he can compete with NASCAR’s best.

That golden opportunity has not come along yet.

The closest thing LaJoie ever had to a big break was when he substituted for Chase Elliott last season at World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway. It was his one-off chance to drive a Hendrick Motorsports car, and it ended with a forgettable 21st-place finish. While it is inadvisable to read too much into one race, it certainly was not the result that LaJoie had hoped for, especially since Kyle Larson and William Byron both scored top 10s for Hendrick. Even Hocevar, who filled in for LaJoie in the No. 7 in his Cup debut, was outrunning him until an exploding brake rotor sent him into the turn 1 wall.

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LaJoie and Spire did have some early-season flashes of success last year.

Through the first six races of 2023, LaJoie finished in the top 20 five times and stood 18th in overall points. Yet outside the drafting tracks and a respectable run in Bristol Motor Speedway’s night race, the No. 7 was not competitive. This year, LaJoie began with a top five in the Daytona 500 and a 13th at Atlanta. He had top-10 speed at Las Vegas on Sunday, but a flat tire and spinout with 33 laps to go ruined what was shaping up to be a good points day. LaJoie’s 32nd-place finish dropped him to 17th in the overall standings, but he is still ahead of Hocevar in 25th and Smith in 31st.

However, LaJoie was apparently unhappy with Hocevar after the race.

Until now, LaJoie has never had a measuring stick for his Cup Series capabilities. This season will give him weekly opportunities to race against his new teammates, two rookies who may be a big part of NASCAR’s future. There will be more pressure on LaJoie to be a leader at Spire and help the team continue to grow.

If he is successful in the No. 7, he may still get the big break he has sought.   

About the author

Bryan began writing for Frontstretch in 2016. He has penned Up to Speed for the past seven years. A lifelong fan of racing, Bryan is a published author and automotive historian. He is a native of Columbus, Ohio and currently resides in Southern Kentucky.

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