By DAN GELSTON
LOUDON, NH (AP) — A decade ago, Corey LaJoie won more races in a NASCAR regional series season than Chase Elliott. LaJoie even won more races that season than Kyle Larson. LaJoie finished second – just 16 points – behind Larson in the season points standings.
Larson wrapped up the 2012 NASCAR K&N Pro Series East championship in the same race that a 16-year-old rookie named Tyler Reddick debuted.
All pilots with so much promise.
Find out a decade later: Larson is the defending NASCAR Cup Series champion and widely considered the best pure driver in the sport. Elliott won the 2020 Cup title and holds the most popular driver award. Reddick has just won his first Cup race and is a rising star in such demand that 23XI Racing signed him this week on a deal that won’t start until 2024.
Then there is Joy.
The 30-year-old has spent most of his career battling to drive underfunded or upstart teams and has only one top-five finish in his first 182 career starts. But starting No. 183 on Sunday at Atlanta Motor Speedway, LaJoie led the field from the inside lane on a restart with three laps to go in the race. With his first career win in sight, Elliott slid up to cut his challenger. LaJoie ran out of space and broke the outside wall. He settled for 21st, a number that barely shows how awfully close LaJoie came to beating Elliott for the win and taking the checkered flag for low-budget team Spire Motorsports.
“I wish I had been sitting here watching the trophy all week,” LaJoie said. “I know you’re only as good as your last race, and you drive all the way to Loudon and then everyone forgets about it. For me, that’s a lot of confidence. Because it’s something you can do yourself if you have the right opportunity in the last four, five years. A lot of things seem fabricated sometimes, whether it’s for yourself, whether your beliefs are that you can drive a race car, you start to wonder if you can do it. If you ever have the chance we had on Sunday afternoon to win a Cup race.
LaJoie led 19 laps in Atlanta, a modest total for most star drivers, but consider he’s now led 46 laps his entire Cup career. Is he a one-weekend wonder or can LaJoie — buried 31st in the points standings — race for a win Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway? Well, his average finish is 29.6 in seven career starts. LaJoie, who has spent years trying to find a competitive racing team to prove he can compete with elite equipment, must now hope that the near miss in Atlanta was a stepping stone to that first victory and not just one more lost opportunity that he won’t. sniff again.
“I think the biggest feeling I took away over the weekend was just the confidence that I can do it and Spire is able to do it, on occasion,” LaJoie said.
Occasionally. That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement for a race team that was blessed with a win in the rain in 2019 but otherwise has six top-10 finishes in 182 starts. LaJoie conceded his No. 7 Chevrolet team needed a clean run most weekends just to finish in the top 20.
“When we have all the air in the tires and the tires in the car and the steering is working and the oil lines aren’t fraying and have no holes or water lines, we’re done. in the top 20,” LaJoie said. “For us as a team to finish in the top 20, if you don’t have any problems, that’s pretty important. You beat a handful of teams that you should never be.
Such is the life of a latecomer. LaJoie said he had to consider a potential 10th through 15th place this weekend in New Hampshire “as much of a win as it is winning a trophy.”
Austin Cindric, Chase Briscoe, Ross Chastain, Daniel Suarez and Reddick all won their first Cup races this season and LaJoie almost joined the group with the biggest shock of all.
But Atlanta was a throwback to the old days when LaJoie raced with — and beat — so many future NASCAR stars.
“If someone looks at me differently after Sunday than before Sunday, they’ve never really paid attention,” he said.
Ty Dillon is done at GMS Motorsports after just one season.
Dillon tweeted Friday “we have mutually agreed to part ways” after a season in which he has yet to finish better than 10th. The team sent out a similar tweet stating that it was “focused on strong racing and getting the #42 Chevy Camaro on the road to victory.”
Dillon is 27th in points and winless in 185 career Cup starts.
The team has not announced a replacement for Dillon in 2023.
GO COUNT THE VOTES
The tribe has spoken. Julia Landauer will make her Xfinity Series debut on Saturday in New Hampshire.
Landauer, 30, a 2012 “Survivor: Caramoan” contestant, struggled like many prospects to find her path to competing in one of NASCAR’s three national series. She started racing go-karts at age 10 and never stopped racing through college and found rides around the world, even the European NASCAR Whelen Series.
So, what has allowed him to survive the years?
“Maybe a little madness, maybe a little stubbornness, maybe not wanting to find other kinds of work,” she said. “It’s so exciting for me to make all the elements of the race work.”
THE BUSCH CONTRACT
Kyle Busch is still waiting to see if Joe Gibbs Racing can find the sponsorship money to keep the two-time Cup Series champion. M&M Mars has sponsored Busch since he joined the Gibbs organization in 2008, but the company is withdrawing its NASCAR marketing expenses at the end of that season. Officials from JGR and Toyota, the team constructor, remained adamant about their return to the team next season.
“There are no absolutes when it comes to this issue,” said David Wilson, president of Toyota Racing Development. “It’s a tough sport and sponsorship is essential to our long-term success at all levels. We work diligently, hand in hand, with (JGR) and Kyle, obviously. We act in good faith and we will continue to do so. »
Ryan Blaney is a 6-1 favorite to win on Sunday, according to FanDuel Sportsbook. Busch and Joey Logano are next at 7-1 to win the 301-mile race.
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