By David Morgan, Associate Editor
HAMPTON, Ga. – They knew he was here.
While the final rundown shows the No. 7 Chevrolet in 21st place, that doesn’t tell the whole story of the run by Corey Lajoie and Spire Motorsports on Sunday at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
After finishing fifth at the track back in March, Lajoie was confident they could be a factor again this time around, even starting deep in the field in 30th place.
By the end of the second stage, Lajoie had worked his way into the top-10 and had no plans of stopping there.
Taking over the lead for the first time on lap 192 after a fuel only call on pit road, the Raze Energy sponsored machine would be a fixture at the front of the field for the remainder of the race. Swapping the lead with eventual winner Chase Elliott over the course of the next 13 laps, Lajoie relinquished the lead to Elliott with 55 laps remaining, but stayed in the mix up front.
When the 11th caution of the day came out on lap 252, Lajoie was able to wrestle the lead away from Martin Truex, Jr. as less than 10 laps showed on the board.
For the next seven laps, Lajoie held serve in the lead, but the penultimate caution of the day set up a three-lap dash to the finish, where he would have to hold off Elliott, Truex, and others to try and score his first NASCAR Cup Series win.
Lajoie put up a hell of a fight, but Elliott was a man on a mission, powering into second-place with a bold three-wide move and keeping a head of steam as the swept around Lajoie on the high side to take the lead entering Turn 1 with two laps to go.
Giving it his all, Lajoie had a push from Erik Jones to try and retake the lead from Elliott on the last lap, but Elliott moved up to block and Lajoie wound up in the wall, eventually losing control of his car to bring out the final caution flag.
In the blink on an eye, he went from battling for the win to watching the No. 7 tumble down the leaderboard, ending up in 21st when all was said and done.
Even though he was disappointed to not be the one celebrating in Victory Lane, Lajoie held his head high given the run his team had delivered.
“I felt that was the only shot I had,” Lajoie said. “I’ve been in a position at a speedway once before where I felt like I didn’t take the one run I had and that was my one run. They covered it and I got caught in the fence. Running second might do some good for our team, but it doesn’t move the needle in terms of really moving our charter forward and all that sort of stuff. So I was going for the win. Because they’re super valuable nowadays. Just came up a little short.
“Today, our strategy was to have good track position to start the third stage and whatever it was, it was, and we found ourself right where we wanted to be even better than what we probably expected.
“It just sucks, man. I’m pretty disappointed. I’m proud of my guys bringing me a good car. TJ did a great job spotting for us. I think it just shows what we’re capable of any given week. It’s just hard to string those types of runs together, being a small team, but you know, when we hit on it and we execute a race, I think we could be a respectable team each and every week. And that’s why ultimately, I sign up to do it.”
A consistent threat on the superspeedways, Lajoie explained that he took lessons learned from other tracks of this nature and put that into his game plan for Sunday, notably from last year’s regular season finale at Daytona.
“I pulled some things I learned from Daytona last July or last September,” he said. “When I was in second, I made some mistakes just from not being in that position before. And I kind of applied ’em today of understanding when guys are dragging back, how to make runs, where to be, and when to be there. I thought I found myself in the right spot at the right time. If I could have just gotten to the right rear of the 9, I thought I could’ve grabbed him, grabbed some help, but who knows.
“I’ll watch it back probably a hundred times then I’ll replay it a hundred times in my head on the way back on the plane. I don’t think I’d choose another thing right now because I was going for it and I was not content to push the nine to the wind. There’s a little bit of a Chevy line, a little Hendrick help here and there, but I didn’t come here to be a good friend.”
Even though it was a block by Elliott that started the chain of events that ended with him in the wall, Lajoie noted there were no hard feelings for the move the 2020 Cup Series champion pulled.
“Anything’s fair. Everything’s fair,” Lajoie said. “You’ve got to win. You’ve got to win the race. Especially how much weights on it, how much money is involved in it. You know, the paycheck I got for finishing fifth here the first race was one reason why I wasn’t content to run fifth. Doesn’t pay enough to run fifth. You’ve got to win the race.
“So, you’ve got to block, you’ve got to dump, you’ve got to send it in there. If you’re in position and you don’t make a move, then it’s your fault because the next guy’s going to do it.”
Lajoie also added that one of the biggest takeaways from Sunday’s run by his team – the best in recent memory for both driver and team – will the added confidence that they will have going forward.
“Confidence as a driver is the most important commodity and you can’t go to the store and find it,” Lajoie said. “You can’t go to the simulator and find it. It’s like having confidence in your guys, having confidence in the cars we’re building. You have confidence in your own ability. Like it all is a cake that we’re continuing to see. Like Ross (Chastain), right? Like a guy like that, even Daniel (Suarez) runs sixth again.
“It’s like when you get kicked in the dick 32 weeks out of the year, it is hard to muster up confidence in what you think you can do in a race car.”