David Mayhew

Never give up: Corey LaJoie keeps chasing his dream

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — The text came at a late hour.

“You want to be a crew chief?” Jimmie Johnson asked.

It was five years ago and Corey LaJoie’s racing career was in flux. He had run five Xfinity and two Truck races in 2014. He would go without a start in Cup, Xfinity and Trucks in 2015. Instead, LaJoie spent 2015 as David Mayhew’s crew chief in what is now the ARCA West Series.

Johnson happened to see LaJoie interviewed during a broadcast of Mayew’s dominating ARCA West win at Evergreen Speedway and was surprised that LaJoie was not racing.

“I thought maybe he was ready to pursue the crew chief side of life,” Johnson told NBC Sports. “I thought, man, we’ve got a huge system at Hendrick, we’ve got (an Xfinity) team, we’ve got engineering roles we need people in all the time and it’s rare you find a racer, someone who grows up racing, that heads down that path.”

Johnson sent LaJoie crew chief Chad Knaus’ number and told LaJoie to call.

He did.

“What do you want to do?” Knaus asked LaJoie.

TOUGH PATH

There never has been any doubt that LaJoie, 28, wanted to race.

“I’ve never wanted to not do it from the time I was 7 years old and my dad started to make me build my own race cars,” LaJoie, son of two-time Xfinity champion Randy LaJoie, told NBC Sports.

He wanted to make my path hard enough all the way through the times where he knew opportunities were going to dry up and even when you’re not in the best cars. The resilience that you have to learn, it breaks you down to the foundation of why you want to do it. If your foundation is based off of, well because my dad hired some good people and I won a lot of go-kart races, that ain’t what’s going to keep you going. It’s the fire, the feeling you did this with your buddies or your team and it’s because you were the better man that day.”

LaJoie’s ability earned accolades. He was selected to the NASCAR Next class in 2011 and ’12. That program spotlighted top drivers age 21 and under on a path to NASCAR. Among the drivers selected either of those years with LaJoie were Chase Elliott, Kyle Larson, Ryan Blaney, Alex Bowman and Matt DiBenedetto.

But sponsorship issues interceded and LaJoie’s opportunities became more infrequent. He ran five ARCA races in 2013, winning three times but that didn’t lead to any opportunities.

Instead of fading away, LaJoie accepted a role as a crew chief for the ARCA West team in 2015, flying from Charlotte, North Carolina to California on a regular basis.

“It’s easy to … get beat down because you don’t get a lot of validation for what you’re doing inside the car and outside the car,” LaJoie said. “So I do remind myself of when I was flying to Bakersfield, making 1,200 bucks to crew chief a West car. I remind myself that because pursuing that with my time and my whole heart was what allowed me to stay in the fold to be a race car driver. I keep coming back to a couple of conversations with Chad Kanus and Jimmie.”

“I CAN’T HANG IT UP”

Knaus discussed the possibility of a job for LaJoie at JR Motorsports, the Xfinity team affiliated with Hendrick Motorsports, as a car chief or mechanic.

“I slept on it and tossed and turned and called him back and said I appreciate the effort,” LaJoie said. “I don’t want to give up trying to be a race car driver. I don’t know why because I don’t have any driving stuff going on at all. I can’t hang it up yet.”

LaJoie admits there was more he could have done to race. He didn’t reach out to companies for sponsorship.

“I was kind of bitter,” LaJoie said. “I was over the whole firing off cold calls. … I wasn’t full court press trying to find money to be a race car driver.”

A sponsor reached out to LaJoie and wanted to help get back in a car. It led to a 10-race effort with JGL Racing in 2016. LaJoie failed to finish four races and had two top-10 results.

After the season, LaJoie was “hounding” BK Racing car owner Ron Devine to drive one of his Cup cars in 2017.

“I’ll mow your grass, whatever you want me to do,” LaJoie said he told Devine. “You can give me $200 a race. I just want to drive your car.”

LaJoie asked Johnson if he would call Devine and help convince Devine to sign LaJoie.

“He really deserves a chance,” Johnson said he told Devine.

Shortly after Johnson’s call, Devine told LaJoie they could do a deal. But Devine told LaJoie that if he didn’t make the Daytona 500, there wouldn’t be enough money to run LaJoie’s team.

“I didn’t tell him I had zero drafting experience,” LaJoie said.

LaJoie made the Daytona 500 and ran 31 more events for BK Racing, an underfunded team, that season. He had one top-20 finish. LaJoie ran 23 races in 2018 for TriStar Motorsports, another underfunded team. He had one top-20 finish.

Last year, LaJoie moved to Go Fas Racing, a step up among the small teams but still one that has limited resources. LaJoie scored two top-10 finishes and six top-20 results.

A HEARTFELT LETTER

LaJoie’s results do not stand out, but one has to factor the teams he was with and the financial challenges they faced. He’s pondered whether it would be better to run with a more competitive team in the Xfinity Series and go for wins vs. running in the pack in Cup. Each time he thinks running Cup is better.

“The guys that I race around any given Sunday, they run 24th to 28th and are guys that are capable of winning Xfinity races,” LaJoie said. “I’m learning the same tricks of the trade, how to move around, car control on Sunday that I would be on Saturday.”

Even with those results, LaJoie has not lost his confidence.

“The reason why I didn’t give (driving) up, you just think back to times growing up and times you were racing Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott, the guys that are making a name for themselves and are successful,” LaJoie said.

“I can remember vividly races where you are in the zone and I am better than them. There were times they would do the same thing back to me. I never thought I wasn’t capable of doing it at the highest level. I never gave that up.

“There’s times, sometimes a string of six, seven weeks in a row you’re wondering what in the hell am I doing, do I know how to drive a race car? But then you’ve just got to go back to those times where you didn’t have the best car and you had to move around and you had to find different areas to get after it and you rememberer that feeling of accomplishment you had and that was kind of what kept my flame going of not giving up.”

It is that confidence that LaJoie, who will start at the rear in Sunday’s Daytona 500 because he’s going to a backup car, looks to the future.

He is one of several drivers whose contracts expire after this season. Among those are a former champion (Brad Keselowski) and four other drivers who won Cup races last year (Larson, Blaney, Bowman and Erik Jones). And there are others who will be free agents after this season who finished higher in points than LaJoie, who was 29th last year.

With that in mind, LaJoie knows he needs to do something different to stand out.

He wrote a letter to car owner Rick Hendrick, seeking to be considered for the No. 48 car, which is open with Jimmie Johnson saying this will be his final full-time Cup season. LaJoie gave Hendrick the letter at the NASCAR Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony last month.

“He talked about how he got started, and I told him when he handed it to me that ‘You’ve been a great model for NASCAR, I’ve watched you and you’re clean cut and you’ve done a good job,’ ” Hendrick told NBC Sports.

Hendrick said he never received a letter like LaJoie’s.

“This was the first time I’ve gotten a letter from the heart,” Hendrick said. “I’ve gotten letters and phones calls, usually from agents. It was really a heartfelt letter (from LaJoie) and it was really personal.

“I was impressed with him before and am more impressed after.”

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Noah Gragson wins K&N West race at Sonoma after Ryan Preece restart violation

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Noah Gragson won Saturday’s K&N Pro Series West race at Sonoma Raceway in overtime under caution after Ryan Preece was black flagged for a restart violation.

Gragson, who competes full-time in the Xfinity Series, earned the win after battling back from his own restart violation in the first segment of the 57-lap race.

The race needed three overtime attempts to reach the checkered flag. The second was setup by a Lawless Alan wreck that resulted in a red flag. The final attempt was created by a Bill Kann wreck on the ensuing restart.

It was the restart from the Kann accident where Preece was deemed to have jumped the start.

Gragson restarted third and passed Daniel Hemric to put himself in position to inherit the win.

“Hell of race,” Gragson told NASCAR.com. “I was very fortunate to have a really fast Switch Camaro thanks to Jeff Jefferson and Jerry Pitts at Jefferson Pitts Racing. … Kind of had a little bit of adversity there in the middle of the race. Got called for jumping the start as the leader. Never really heard that one before.”

Ryan Preece said he was “pissed” and called the penalty “bull(expletive)” and declared “we won that race.”

“On the restart before that I was rolling it pretty fast and Daniel I think was restarting in second gear,” Preece said. “I heard that coming to the (final) green, so I backed down at the restart, I slowed down. … Maybe it looked like it, but I didn’t go any sooner.”

When asked if he would talk to NASCAR, Preece responded, “What are you going to do? I mean it’s their playground, it’s their sandbox. They’re going to do what they want. They manipulated the race at the end of the day. We won that race.”

Gragson was one of five national series drivers competing in the race.

The final top five was Gragson, Hemric, Austin Dillon, Xfinity Series driver Cole Custer and David Mayhew.

Pole-sitter Hailie Deegan never led a lap and finished eighth. Preece was scored finishing 20th after his penalty.

Gragson’s win comes in his first K&N West race since 2016. He now has five wins in 28 starts. He also has two wins in the K&N East series.

It also serves as a bit of redemption for Gragson, who led 34 laps in this race in 2016 before finishing second to Chase Elliott.

The race will air tape delayed June 27 at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

Corey LaJoie: Go Fas Racing ride ‘probably the best Christmas gift I’ve ever had’

Daniel McFadin
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — In September 2010, Archie St. Hilaire delivered a clear message to Randy LaJoie after a K&N Pro Series East race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

“Your kid will never run in anything I own, ever, ever, ever,” the owner of Go Fas Racing declared.

St. Hilaire was caught up in the heat of the moment. The car he owned, the No. 38 driven by Alan Tardiff, had just been wrecked from the lead with two laps to go in the scheduled distance of the 125-lap race.

The culprit? An 18-year-old Corey LaJoie, the son of Randy, a two-time Xfinity Series champion who also owned his son’s K&N ride.

LaJoie had been on Tardiff’s inside entering Turn 3 when they made contact. LaJoie spun while Tardiff hit the wall.

LaJoie went on to finish 13th and in the last three years has made 57 Cup starts. The New Hampshire race was Tardiff’s last in a top NASCAR series.

Two weeks ago, just over eight years after the incident, LaJoie signed with Go Fas Racing to become the next full-time driver of its No. 32 Ford in the Cup Series.

When the signing was done, St. Hilaire told his new driver he had a call to make.

“I got to call your dad and tell him I lied to him a few years ago,” St. Hilaire recalled Thursday during the team’s announcement at the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

“That’s one thing I’ve learned in NASCAR, never say never. ‘Cause that’s a long time,” St. Hilaire said.

Thursday saw LaJoie, now 27, finally get to share “probably the best Christmas gift I’ve ever had.”

A week before he’s set to get married, LaJoie was announced as the next driver of the No. 32 Ford, a car previously driven by Matt DiBenedetto.

It’s the first time in LaJoie’s Cup career that he’s known in December that he’ll have a ride in February.

The new ride comes with other perks he’s never had in his last two years of Cup racing.

“A paycheck is good,” LaJoie said, referencing the 32 starts he made in 2017 with the now-defunct BK Racing.

“Engines that don’t blow up are good,” LaJoie said of his 23 starts in 2018 with TriStar Motorsports, where he had seven DNFs, five for expired engines.

But most importantly, LaJoie is set to be in the car for every points race for the first time. Not even his father can claim a full Cup season on his resume.

“Being in the car every week is going to be huge,” LaJoie said. “To work with the same group of guys, week in and week out where you can actually prepare, watch film, studying notes and then actually go from the first race of the year back for the second time is going to be huge. I think there’s nothing but positives here.”

That’s not an understatement for LaJoie.

Four years ago, he was a “development” driver (air quotes added by LaJoie) for Richard Petty Motorsports in the Xfinity Series.

“I was taking a different path. I just had to pay the bills,” LaJoie said. “They gave me a T-shirt and a backpack and paid me 40 grand a year and sat me on the couch for two years. They couldn’t find me any sponsorship. They put me in that (Biagi-DenBeste Racing) car. I tried to do too much. I didn’t realize the gap from a 15th-place car to a fifth-place car is as big as it is. Anytime up to that point in my career if we were 15th it was because I wasn’t driving it right or I wasn’t driving it hard enough.

“Knowing when to take a 15th-place car and finish 14th or 13th after a couple of guys wreck, I had to learn the hard way. I was lucky enough people saw the talent even when I was wrecking cars or putting myself in bad positions.”

LaJoie is also three years’ removed from being paid $500 to fly to the West Coast to be a crew chief on a K&N West team. He actually produced two wins in the series with David Mayhew, with one coming at Sonoma Raceway.

But Sundays were hard for the third-generation driver.

“There was times where Sunday nights where I was wondering what I was doing, if I should go back and start welding seats or go be a crew chief,” LaJoie said.

A path to the latter was provided at one point by one of the most successful crew chiefs in Cup history.

“Chad Knaus called me probably … four years ago now, wanting to stick me over and be a car chief (at JR Motorsports) working through that system,” LaJoie said. “I was like, ‘Man, I’m not ready to give up the driving thing yet.’ And it’s just worked out with different partners. I’ve surrounded myself with good people, and (it) ultimately gets me hooked up with Archie, and now we’re really going to make something happen here next year.”

And what happens after 2019 for an owner who wanted nothing to do with his new driver eight years ago?

St. Hilaire is taking it one year at a time.

“Everybody in our business we have a one-year deal, and I always say, ‘Let’s make sure we like each other,’ ” St. Hilaire said. “I do it in my regular businesses, because if it’s after one year and he doesn’t like me and I don’t like him or somebody doesn’t like anybody, I don’t want to drag anybody through a two- or three-year deal. Hopefully it’s many years, but at this point let’s try it and make sure we like it and move forward from there.”

For LaJoie, it will be his first full-time ride in NASCAR since 2012 in the K&N East.

“I need to be careful,” he said. “I might make a career of this thing before long.”

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Kyle Busch entered into SRL Winter Showdown Super Late Model race

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Kyle Busch is entered into the third annual SRL Winter Showdown, a Super Late Model race at Kern County Raceway Park in Bakersfield, California.

Busch, who is competing in the Race of Champions this weekend in Miami, will drive the No. 51 Toyota Camry sponsored by JBL in the Feb. 11 race.

Busch and his competitors will be trying to claim the $30,000 prize for winning the race. Kyle Busch Motorsports had a presence in last year’s Showdown when Todd Gilliland competed for the team.

“They have a pretty strong field lined up again this year with Bubba Pollard coming back and trying to make it three-in-a-row. And then you add in some of the West Coast guys like Derek Thorn, David Mayhew and Noah Gragson, who will be running one of my trucks full-time this season, and it has a lot of great drivers,” Busch told Speed51.com. “One of the things that is going to be really cool is that this will be the first time that Erik Jones and I get to race against each other in the supers since he beat me in the Snowball Derby back in 2013.”

Busch is quite successful in his Super Late Model career, having won the Snowball Derby, CRA SpeedFest, the Oxford 250, the Winchester 400 and the Battle at Berlin in recent years.

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