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

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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.”

NASCAR Awards to air at 8 p.m. ET Saturday on Peacock

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Joey Logano didn’t need much time to answer the question.

Who would the two-time Cup champion want to introduce him at the NASCAR Awards?

Racing icon Mario Andretti, Logano immediately said. 

And there was Andretti on the stage at the Music City Center introducing Logano, the 2022 Cup champion. Watch that and the rest of the night’s festivities at 8 p.m. ET Saturday on Peacock. You can order Peacock here.

MORE: See the red carpet scene

MORE: Sport shows support for Gibbs family at NASCAR Awards

NBC Sports’ Marty Snider and Kim Coon co-hosted the show along with Fox Sports’ Kaitlyn Vincie. The Cup, Xfinity and Truck champions were honored. Xfinity champion Ty Gibbs, whose father died hours after Gibbs won the Xfinity title last month, received a standing ovation and thanked the industry for its support.

The highlight of the night for Logano was having Andretti on stage to introduce him.

“He’s just been a great role model for me, not only as a racer, but as a person for so long,” Logano said afterward. “I had his picture on my wall. I looked at Mario Andretti before I went to sleep every night as a kid. I thought it was the coolest thing that he signed it to me.”

NASCAR Awards and Champion Celebration
Cup champion Joey Logano on stage with racing icon Mario Andretti during the NASCAR Awards in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Logano and Andretti have gotten to know each other through the years. Logano ran a throwback car that honored Andretti at Darlington Raceway in 2015 and 2021.

But none of that compared to being on stage with Andretti.

“That’s still like a pinch-me moment,” Logano said. “It’s Mario Andretti. He’s the man. The fact that he knows my name I think is really, really cool.”

Catch the NASCAR Awards at 8 p.m. ET Saturday on Peacock

Sport shows support for Gibbs family at NASCAR Awards

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The NASCAR community showed its support Thursday at the NASCAR Awards for the Gibbs family, grieving the death of Coy Gibbs on Nov. 6. 

During his interview on stage, car owner Joe Gibbs thanked the NASCAR industry for its support. (The NASCAR Awards show airs at 8 p.m. ET Saturday on Peacock).

Coy Gibbs, son of Joe Gibbs and father of Xfinity champion Ty Gibbs, died hours after seeing Ty Gibbs win the series title last month at Phoenix Raceway. Coy Gibbs, 49, was the vice chairman and chief operating officer at Joe Gibbs Racing.

Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR chief operating officer, introduced Ty Gibbs at the NASCAR Awards and noted that “everyone gathered tonight is all a part of the NASCAR family, and I know I speak for everyone that the entire NASCAR family is 100% percent behind this young man.”

Ty Gibbs received a standing ovation.

“Thank you,” he told the crowd, “that means a lot.”

Ty Gibbs spoke for less than a minute, thanking his team, sponsors, fans and the NASCAR community.

He closed his speech by saying “And thanks to my family. I love you. I hope everybody has a great offseason. Enjoy it. Thank you for all the support. Thank you for all the claps. I really appreciate it.”

Ty Gibbs spoke to the media earlier Thursday. Asked how he was doing, he said: “I’ve been doing good. Thank you for asking and definitely appreciate you guys. We’ve been doing good, doing a lot of stuff this week. … It’s been fun to experience this stuff.”

Asked about Joe Gibbs addressing the organization after Coy’s death, Ty Gibbs politely said: “For right now, I’m not going to touch on any of that subject at all. I’m just going to stick with all the racing questions and go from there.”

Cup champion Joey Logano said he spent time with 20-year-old Ty Gibbs on Wednesday at the champion’s dinner.

Logano said he told Ty Gibbs that “we’re here for you. You need something reach out.”

Brennan Poole joins Bayley Currey at JD Motorsports for 2023

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Brennan Poole will join Bayley Currey at JD Motorsports for the 2023 NASCAR Xfinity season, the team announced Friday.

Poole will drive the No. 6 car for the full season. Currey returns to the team’s No. 4 car for the season. Currey scored five top-15 finishes last season for the organization.

JD Motorsports is planning to run the No. 0 car next season. No driver or sponsor has been announced for that ride.

“We’re full throttle here and getting ready to go,” Davis said in a statement from the team. “Bayley and Brennan are signed on and looking forward to chasing races and points next year. We’re actively moving along looking for sponsor commitments and for drivers and sponsors for the No. 0 car.”

“We’ve always taken the approach here that we want to go after the series with multiple cars, and that’s how we’re looking toward 2023. The new schedule is very interesting and provides new challenges to our drivers and team members.”

The 2023 Xfinity season begins Feb. 18 at Daytona International Speedway.

Friday 5: Will Kyle Busch become NASCAR’s Tom Brady, Peyton Manning?

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The weight of an unfulfilled season, deciding where he’d race in 2023 and the impact on his Truck Series team are off Kyle Busch.

It’s back to racing for the two-time Cup champion, who seeks to reignite his career at Richard Childress Racing this season.

Busch performed his final duty representing Joe Gibbs Racing at Thursday’s NASCAR Awards (show airs at 8 p.m. ET Saturday on Peacock) and it’s now all about helping RCR win its first Cup championship since 1994.

MORE: NASCAR Awards red carpet scene

Busch will be with Richard Childress Racing this weekend at Circuit of the Americas for World Racing League endurance events. Busch said the team has turned an old Cup car into an endurance car for the event. Last year, RCR won an eight-hour endurance race there with Austin Dillon, Tyler Reddick and Kaz Grala.

Busch seeks better fortunes at RCR than what he’s had recently at Joe Gibbs Racing.

He has one Cup win in his last 53 starts — 14 drivers have won more races than Busch in that span, dating back to the July 2021 race at Road America.

His 17 top-10 finishes this past season were his fewest since scoring 16 top 10s in 2015. 

He was running at the finish in 29 of 36 points races — the first time he’s been running at the finish in fewer than 30 races since 2015. Two blown engines in the opening round of the playoffs led to failing to advance to the second round for the first time in his career. 

“It’s obviously been a challenging, not just this year, but the last little while,” Busch said Thursday at the Music City Center. “So, it’s kind of maybe a blessing in disguise, honestly, where it might just be time for a fresh start, time for something new, time for something different.”

He looks to future NFL Hall of Fame quarterbacks Tom Brady and Peyton Manning for inspiration.

Brady won six Super Bowls with the New England Patriots before  joining Tampa Bay and winning a Super Bowl in his first season with the Buccaneers.

Manning won a Super Bowl with the Indianapolis Colts before joining the Denver Broncos and winning a Super Bowl there in his final season in the NFL.

“I’m kind of looking at it as a Tom Brady, Peyton Manning aspect where they left great teams, great organizations where they won championships and they were able to win a championship somewhere else,” Busch said. “I’d like to think I still have that opportunity to be able to do that at RCR.

“I look at the opportunity with the new Next Gen race car as an easier move to make now with that vs. years past with previous generation cars.”

He says that because with the previous generation of cars, there was a greater separation between teams because NASCAR did not regulate as much of the car. With the the Next Gen car, teams have the same parts. Two-time Cup champion Joey Logano that his team still has much to learn about the car and maximizing setups. 

Even with his struggles at the end of his tenure at Joe Gibbs Racing, Busch says he doesn’t go to RCR with a chip on his shoulder. 

“I don’t think I have anything to prove or I need to have a chip on my shoulder,” Busch said. “I just want to go out there and run well again. … I felt like we had a lot of strong runs this year. There were like six races I can count that we could’ve, would’ve, should’ve won and we didn’t whip is very frustrating. 

“We were so good at giving them away that I need to get back to I’m so good at stealing them and earning them.”

2. Special delivery 

Among the perks with winning a Cup title is getting the Champion’s Journal. Jimmie Johnson started the tradition after his 2010 championship. The existence of the journal remained a secret until 2017 when Johnson posted a picture on social media of him handing the journal to Martin Truex Jr.

The journal passes from champion to champion with the current champion holding on to it for a year and adding an entry for the next champion before handing it to them. Logano will receive the journal from Kyle Larson. 

“I can’t wait to read it again,” Logano said before Thursday’s NASCAR Awards. “I’m telling you, it’s probably one of the coolest things. Jimmie deserves all of the credit for coming up with the idea. 

“I wish it started sooner. It’s so interesting. Some drivers are very detailed what they write to the next champion and some are kind of quick and simple. It’s very interesting to read it. It’s cool. It’s a real secret. It’s kind of like an unwritten rule, you can’t take pictures of it and post it. It’s a thing that only the championship drivers know and have read and seen.

“Every time I get it, I’m so nervous. I’m like don’t spill anything on this thing, don’t lose it. It would suck to be the guy that loses that. That would be bad. I’m putting it right in the safe.”

Logano won his first Cup title in 2018. He then gave the journal to Kyle Busch, the 2019 series champion.

“It’s something you put a lot of thought into, at least I did,” Logano said of what he penned. “I wrote a letter to Kyle. You put a lot of thought into it. It’s something that will be there as long as our sport is around. I hope so at least. It’s a really great tradition.”

3. Fun factor 

The day of last year’s NASCAR Awards, William Byron said he wanted compete in more races outside NASCAR in 2022. 

Byron, who seeks to make Sunday’s prestigious Snowball Derby Super Late Model race, has fulfilled his goal, winning, gaining confidence but also having fun.

“What I got out of it was immediate fun, sort of relief,” Byron said of racing various Super Late Model races this year. “It was not racing the Cup car. It was different. It was not as stressful working with the team and things like that because there’s not as much on the line. There’s still prize money and things, and honestly you’re there to have fun. I enjoyed that.

“As I got going in it, I realized how productive it really was for me to do it, how much I was learning. As I did it more often throughout the season, I learned little nuances that were helping me get back in the Cup car with a better skill set.”

That element of fun stood out to Byron. Cup racing is full of pressure with the multi-million dollar sponsors, expectations to win and all the people at the shop relying on the car’s performance. That’s significant pressure, on top of what any driver puts on themself.

“There’s a lot of guys that you are trying to provide for and do a good job for,” Byron said of Cup racing. “There is a weight to that. You want to perform for those guys that work non-stop at the shop. There’s just a much broader net that you are casting as a driver. Whenever you go to the short track level, it’s you and six to 10 guys working on the car. … There’s natural pressure with what we’re trying to do at the Cup level because it is the No. 1 motorsports in the U.S.”

4. Looking for a ride

Ross Chastain says he’s been “trying for years” to get a ride in the Rolex 24 at Daytona International Speedway without success but that hasn’t deterred him.

“I’ve met with the president of IMSA,” said Chastain, who finished second to Joey Logano for the Cup title this season. “I’ve met with team owners. I’ve talked to drivers. I just can’t find my way in yet. I haven’t found the right person yet to either tell me how to do it or give me the opportunity. I could show up with sponsorship and get a ride, but how do I get in as a race car driver? I haven’t found that spot yet.”

Chastain said he’s reached out to some this offseason with no luck. 

He said the prestige of the season-opening IMSA event (Jan. 28-29, 2023) draws him but he also wants to gain more experience racing on a road course — even with his win at Circuit of the Americas this past season. And Chastain is not picky on the type of ride he’d like to have for that race.

“I’m not even looking to be in the top class. I want to find a mid-pack Xfinity team of the Rolex and go run there and experience it and then just to be around those road racers that do it year around. I know I could learn something. … I just want to race.”

5. Indy 500-Coke 600 double

It has been eight years since Kurt Busch competed in the Indianapolis 500 and Coca-Cola 600 on the same day, the last time the feat has been accomplished. 

Kyle Busch and Kyle Larson are among those who have expressed interest in running both races in the same day but don’t appear to be in a position to do so in 2023 because of the limited IndyCar rides available. 

Roger Penske, owner of the IndyCar Series and Indianapolis Motor Speedway, said he could see Jimmie Johnson attempting it this year, and others as soon as next year. 

“It’s about having the car and the manufactures, whether it’s Chevy and or Honda,” Penske said, referring to the IndyCar manufacturers. “All would be interested to see somebody run the double. Maybe Jimmie is going to do it, which would be great. 

“He has the experience. He did very well on the ovals. … It’s my understanding that he’s going to run potentially the 600 as one of his races (with Petty GMS). We’ll see.”