‘A Cinderella story’: Corey LaJoie comes up one lap and a block short of first Cup win


HAMPTON, Georgia – Corey LaJoie left Atlanta Motor Speedway with a severely damaged car that came agonizingly close to a victory — and no regrets about how any of it transpired Sunday.

“I’ll watch it back probably 100 times,’ LaJoie said after being squeezed into the wall while trying to pass race winner Chase Elliott on the last lap for his first NASCAR Cup Series victory. “I’ll replay it 100 times in my head on the way back on the plane, but I don’t think I’d change anything right now, because I was going for it, and I was not content to push (Elliott) to the win.

“There’s a little bit of a Chevy alliance and Hendrick help here and there, but I didn’t come here to be a good friend to somebody.”

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The result was a 21st place finish for the Spire Motorsports driver that hardly was indicative of how good he was over 400 miles at the revamped Atlanta, which produced superspeedway-style racing akin to Daytona and Talladega in its second race since the 1.5-mile oval was resurfaced with higher banking and narrower turns.

LaJoie started 30th and led 19 laps in the No. 7 Chevrolet – taking first for the final time just before a caution set up the final restart with three laps remaining.

LaJoie took the inside for the final green flag and was unable to stop Elliott from charging around the outside on Lap 259 of 260.

But he made believers out of two NASCAR Hall of Famers from Hendrick Motorsports, whom LaJoie once publicly lobbied for the No. 48 ride when Jimmie Johnson retired.

“I was proud and excited and if we couldn’t win, I wanted (LaJoie) to win,” said Rick Hendrick, whose team supplies engines and has a technical alliance with Spire. “He’s a great guy. That was a Cinderella story, and if we couldn’t win, I wanted him to win. He looked as good as anyone in this field today.”

Chase Elliott and Corey LaJoie battled for the lead Sunday at Atlanta Motor Speedway (Adam Hagy-USA TODAY Sports).

Said Gordon: “I like Corey’s attitude, his drive and he’s got a lot of passion he showed that today. I thought he and the team and the car showed a lot today. You want a guy like that who has the pedigree and passion he has to get the opportunity that he’s searching for, and I think today will go a long way.

“It was a lot of fun watching them racing hard but also racing together. I kind of wish it could have been a 1-2 instead of the way it ended up. He’s been around a long time and knows the ebbs and flows, and his performance will do more for him today than the result will show.”

Though he has hailed the Next Gen car as a vehicle for raising his profile, LaJoie, 30, downplayed the message he sent about his ability.

“It’s up to (the media) to tell the story of how good of a driver I am,” LaJoie said. “I’ve always been the type to try to let the results show, but when you pull up Racing-Reference under Corey LaJoie’s name, there’s not a whole lot of stats to show for it because every team I’ve driven for has been a sub-30 team in points when I got there. I feel like I’ve made all of them better. It’s just impossible to make that much of a gain against teams that are winning races.

“That’s why runs like these make you feel so good and hopefully pumps the guys up at the shop. Because those guys work their fingers to the bone. It just sucks, but I wouldn’t change a thing. I’m actually more content seeing the 7 in 21st wadded up than I would have been with second or third because then I would have been even more mad. It would have paid way better, but that’s irrelevant.”

Corey LaJoie led 19 laps but finished 21st after a last-lap crash at Atlanta Motor Speedway (Nate Ryan).

The closing laps crackled with intensity and emotion for LaJoie, who was ranked 31st in the points and without a top 10 since finishing fifth in the March 20 race at the track.

“The last time I raced Chase when there was no one in front of us but the pace car was 10 years ago,” LaJoie said. “Obviously our careers have taken different trajectories, but I do feel I’m capable in the right scenario with these guys I’m with now do a good job for me.

“We’ve had a tough little stretch. If anything, it isn’t finishing position, it’s proving we can do it. If we execute and build fast race cars, having a day like today where we hit it all, we can be as good as the powerhouses. You can’t string those runs together each week because we don’t have the depth, but to have these runs occasionally makes you feel good. and I’m looking forward to doing it more often.”

Elliott, who raced LaJoie in the K&N Series before winning the 2014 Xfinity Series championship and 2020 Cup title, seemed conflicted about his winning move before a hometown crowd that raucously cheered for the Dawsonville, Georgia, native.

“I hate to throw a mega block like that,” Elliott said. “I shied away from that big block throughout the day. I’d always given in at different points to a guy when they had that big of a run.

“If you let him go, one of two things can happen, you choose the lane you want to lose in and hope you have enough time to get him back. Or you throw a big block and hope you can stay in front of him. You can crash throwing a big block. Or try to be patient and wait and then the crash happens behind you, and you’ve given up the lead, and the caution comes out and now the race is over. I don’t know how you exactly know what choice to make.

“(LaJoie) is coming with a massive run. Am I taking a chance of crashing when I threw it up in front of him? Absolutely. I didn’t think I was getting another shot if I let him grab the lead. I felt more comfortable defending more aggressively up to the top. I felt it was a situation I could win on, but those situations are impossible. I don’t know how you know what’s going to happen next to be able to make that choice.”

There were no hard feelings for LaJoie, who went to victory lane to congratulate Elliott. During multiple postrace interviews, LaJoie deemed Elliott’s block as necessary because it’s “the last lap of the race and especially in front of Dawsonville’s finest. You’ve got to go for it.

“Anything’s fair,” LaJoie said. “Everything’s fair. You’ve got to win the race. Especially how much weight is on it. How much money is involved in it. The paycheck I got for finishing fifth (in the March 20 race at Atlanta) was one reason I wasn’t content to run fifth. It 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. And if you’re in position and don’t make a move, then it’s your fault because the next guy is going to do it.

“It’s a bit out of character just for me to be racing for wins. It’s something new for the fans to see me racing up front and hopefully it’s not an unfamiliar sight going forward, because as a team I think we can do it. Not every week but more consistently than we’ve shown so far this year.”

Said crew chief Ryan Sparks to NBC Sports: “I thought we were in position to win and got run in the fence, and I’d like to think my driver would do the same thing. The shoe will be on the other foot one day. There’s nothing to hang our heads about. The past two months have been rough. It killed all our confidence as a team and Corey as a driver. There’s a lot to be proud of and a bright future ahead.”

And there could be one more opportunity to qualify for the Cup playoffs in the Aug. 27 regular-season finale at Daytona International Speedway (though LaJoie also would need to a climb a spot into the top 30 in the points standings for eligibility).

Last August at Daytona, LaJoie was running second at the white flag before piling into a last-lap crash and finishing 16th. After applying many of the lessons he learned from that race Sunday, he has belief that “we can throw a Hail Mary again.

“Confidence with a driver is the most important commodity,” LaJoie said. “You can’t go to a store and find it. You can’t go to the simulator and find it.

“When you get kicked in the (groin) 32 weeks out of the year, it is hard to muster up confidence of what you think you can do in a race car.

“That car’s going to the junkyard, but I’m sure Daytona, those guys will have one built and have another solid game plan and hopefully we’re in the top 2-3 rows when the pay window is open.”

COTA Xfinity Series results

COTA Xfinity results
Photo by Logan Riely/Getty Images

AJ Allmendinger led 28 of 46 laps Saturday to win the Xfinity Series race at Circuit of the Americas for the second year in a row.

Allmendinger held off William Byron to score his first victory of the year and 16th in the Xfinity Series.

MORE: COTA Xfinity results

Ty Gibbs placed third and was followed by rookie Sammy Smith and Justin Allgaier.

Smith, Allgaier, Daniel Hemric, who placed sixth, and Sam Mayer, who finished seventh, will be eligible for the $100,000 Dash 4 Cash next weeked at Richmond after being the top four full-time Xfinity finishers Saturday.



AJ Allmendinger wins Xfinity race at COTA

AJ Allmendinger Xfinity COTA
Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

AJ Allmendinger overcame damage from a restart to win Saturday’s Xfinity Series race at Circuit of the Americas.

This is the second year in a row he has won this race. It is Allmendinger’s first victory of the season and 16th career Xfinity win.

MORE: COTA race results 

William Byron, driving for Hendrick Motorsports, finished second. Ty Gibbs placed third, Sammy Smith fourth and Justin Allgaier fifth.

Smith, Allgaier, sixth-place finisher Daniel Hemric and seventh-place finisher Sam Mayer — the top four full-time Xfinity drivers — will be eligible for the $100,000 Dash 4 Cash bonus next week at Richmond Raceway.

Allmendinger won the first stage and then pitted. When a caution came out shortly, it put him 21st in the field. On the Lap 20 restart, his car suffered damage when he was hit going into Turn 1.

Allmendinger worked his way through the field and took the lead from Sheldon Creed on Lap 33 when they made contact and Creed spun. Creed fell back to 23rd and finished the 46-lap race in ninth.

Stage 1 winner: AJ Allmendinger

Stage 2 winner: Sheldon Creed

Who had a good race: Josh Berry placed eighth after suffering damage to the front of his car on the first corner of the first lap. It is his fifth consecutive top 10. … Riley Herbst‘s 10th-place finish gives him his ninth consecutive top 10.

Who had a bad race: Austin Hill, who had won three of the first five races this season, had mechanical issues early and finished 37th in the 38-car field.

Next: The series races April 1 at Richmond Raceway (1 p.m. ET on FS1)

COTA Truck race results: Zane Smith wins


Reigning series champion Zane Smith won Saturday’s Craftsman Truck Series race at Circuit of the Americas for the second year in a row.

The victory is Smith’s second of this year.

MORE: COTA Truck race results

MORE: Truck points after COTA

Kyle Busch finished second and was followed by Ty Majeski, Tyler Ankrum and Ross Chastain.

The key moment came when Parker Kligerman‘s truck came to a stop on the frontstretch at Lap 28. Smith, running second, made it to pit road before it was closed. Busch, who was leading, had already passed pit road entrance.

Smith gained the lead with the move, while Busch had to pit under the caution and restarted 16th. Smith was able to build a lead and beat Busch by 5.4 seconds.

Stage 1 winner: Christian Eckes

Stage 2 winner: Kyle Busch

Who had a good race: Ty Majeski’s third-place finish is his best of the season. … Tyler Ankrum’s fourth-place finish is his best of the year. … Corey Heim has finished sixth two races in a row. … Rookie Nick Sanchez finished seventh, giving him back-to-back top 10s.

Who had a bad race: Parker Kligerman was running third when electrical issues forced him to stop on track just after the end of the second stage. … After winning the first stage, Christian Eckes had mechanical issues and had to pit for repairs, costing him several laps.

Notable: Front Row Motorsports has won the Truck COTA race all three years. Todd Gilliland won the race in 2021 and Zane Smith has won it the past two years.

Next: The series races April 1 at Texas Motor Speedway (4:30 p.m. ET on FS1).

NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series XPEL 225
COTA winner Zane Smith’s truck catches fire after he did his burnout on the frontstretch. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

COTA Cup starting lineup


Hendrick Motorsports driver William Byron, who has won two of the first five races of the season, will lead the Cup field to the green flag Sunday at Circuit of the Americas.

Byron will be joined on the front row of the starting lineup by Tyler Reddick, the only driver to win multiple races at road courses last year.

MORE: COTA Cup starting lineup

Austin Cindric starts third and is joined in the second row by Jordan Taylor, who is filling in for the injured Chase Elliott in the No. 9 Hendrick car.

Taylor’s performance is the best qualifying effort by a driver making their Cup debut since Boris Said started second in his Cup debut at Watkins Glen in 1999.