Rick Hendrick

Justin Allgaier ready for starring role as Jimmie Johnson’s understudy

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If Sunday’s Brickyard 400 was a Broadway play, Justin Allgaier would be the understudy stepping in to fill in for the star, namely, Jimmie Johnson.

And while it may be looked at as only a fill-in role for Allgaier driving Johnson’s No. 48 Chevrolet due to Johnson having tested positive Friday for COVID-19, a strong run in Sunday’s race (4 p.m. ET on NBC and the NBC Sports App) could put Allgaier’s name on the list of potential replacements for Johnson, who is retiring at the end of this season.

“I would say the list for the 48 car of potential drivers is extremely long and I don’t know where I fit on that list,” Allgaier said after finishing sixth in Saturday’s Xfinity race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. “For me, 100% is what I can give. I think it’s gonna be important to go out there and just do what I can do.

“And if an opportunity were to come out of that and to go somewhere, obviously I would love for that opportunity. But on the other side of that point, I have a great relationship with my team at JR Motorsports. … That’s gonna be the most important part is, just going it 100% (Sunday) and whatever happens after that happens.”

Johnson filling in for Johnson isn’t exactly a surprise. Allgaier has been Johnson’s designated backup since NASCAR resumed racing in May following a nearly three-month hiatus due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“We have had our own basically secondary line-up and that includes anyone from driver to crew chief all the way through the crew members that travel to the race track,” Johnson’s crew chief, Cliff Daniels, said. “There really was no extra thought that we had to put into it. This lineup was already set.

“We had all the plans in place just out of the abundance of caution that we wanted to take. And again, even before going back racing in Darlington, this has been in place. There were no extra decisions to be made. Justin has been on stand-by this whole time and has been aware that this could happen.”

For now, Allgaier is slated to replace Johnson for Sunday’s Brickyard 400. There’s also the possibility he could stay in the No. 48 for next weekend’s race at Kentucky.

Johnson must have two negative COVID-19 tests in no less than a 24-hour period and also be given clearance by his doctor before he can return behind the wheel.

By missing the Brickyard 400, which he’s won four times, Johnson also snaps a streak of 663 consecutive starts in the Cup Series dating back to his rookie campaign in 2002. It’s the longest streak of any active driver in the Cup Series.

“I didn’t expect this opportunity would come to fruition,” Allgaier said. “I couldn’t ask for a better team, the 48 team, I’ve worked with a lot of guys on that team closely. I’m excited in one aspect, but the other part of this is we’re thinking about Jimmie and his whole family. Their safety is of utmost importance.

“No matter what happens tomorrow, we want to see Jimmie get healthy and (Johnson’s wife) Chandra get healthy.  … I texted Jimmie last night and said I want to see him get healthy quick so he can get back because I want to see him back in victory lane a lot more before the end of the season.”

While Allgaier is known most for his 319 Xfinity Series starts, 11 wins and 182 top-10 finishes, the 34-year-old native of Riverton, Illinois, also has 76 starts in the Cup Series on his resume, with a career-best finish of eighth at Bristol in spring 2015.

Given his prior Cup experience, as well as working hand-in-hand with Hendrick Motorsports in various capacities such as testing over the years – team owner Rick Hendrick is also a part-owner of JR Motorsports – Allgaier is both comfortable as well as somewhat nervous of becoming the first driver to ever fill in for Johnson during Johnson’s Cup career.

“That really resonates with me as a driver when you’re already on pins and needles when you’re filling in for somebody else,” Allgaier said. “You want to make sure you’re doing everything right and give them the best finish that you can give them.

“When you’re able to do that and be comfortable, that makes a big difference, and I think that’s what’s been the best part about all of this for me.”

Allgaier considers racing in Johnson’s shoes one of the most humbling experiences of his career.

“I can’t even begin to describe it to you, to be honest with you,” Allgaier said. “The cars at HMS, any of the four cars, it’s definitely an honor to drive and to be part of that program.

“The 48, being the iconic number it is, Jimmie winning seven championships and here (at Indianapolis) four times, the guy Jimmie is and the respect he has in the sport, you top that off with the fact he’s the only driver to drive the 48 since he started his career there.”

While Johnson and Hendrick aren’t putting any undue pressure on Allgaier, he understands the gravity of the position he’s been placed in.

“If you have the opportunity to drive for Mr. Hendrick, you take it, no questions asked and try to run with that ball,” Allgaier said.

But at the same time, Allgaier isn’t going to try and drive over his head or beyond his ability just because he has such a great opportunity.

“Opportunity or not does not supersede to go out there and do the job at hand,” Allgaier said. “100% is what I have to offer. That’s what I’m going to give them tomorrow.

“101 or 110 (percent) or trying to be a hero, there’s no place for that. This isn’t what this role is about. My plan is to go out and give the 48 car the best opportunity to run at its max potential.

“In my mind, I believe that max potential is to go out and win the race tomorrow. So I’ve gotta do a really good job. … I need to make sure that I don’t put myself in bad positions, I don’t do things Jimmie wouldn’t do and being somebody different in the car, everybody in the field is going to know that.

“There are going to be some that respect that and others who are probably going to take advantage of that. You just have to know who you’re racing against and put yourself in the best position you can.

“I just have to make sure when the checkered flag falls tomorrow, I’ve given it 100% and whatever the results are, that’s just what they’re going to be.”

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Jimmie Johnson tests positive for coronavirus

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Seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson has tested positive for coronavirus, becoming the first NASCAR Cup driver do so.

Johnson, a four-time Brickyard winner, will miss Sunday’s Cup at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and next week’s IndyCar test on the Indy road course for Chip Ganassi Racing.

Hendrick Motorsports said in a statement Friday that Johnson will not return until he is cleared by a physician.

Johnson, 44, has not experienced symptoms of COVID-19, according to the Hendrick Motorsports statement.  He was tested upon learning Friday morning that his wife Chandra tested positive after experiencing allergy-like symptoms.

Justin Allgaier will drive for Johnson in his absence.

“My first priority is the health and safety of my loved ones and my teammates,” Johnson said in a statement from Hendrick Motorsports. “I’ve never missed a race in my Cup career, but I know it’s going to be very hard to watch from the sidelines when I’m supposed to be out there competing. Although this situation is extremely disappointing, I’m going to come back ready to win races and put ourselves in playoff contention.”

Johnson, who is in his final full-time Cup season, has the longest streak for consecutive starts among active drivers at 663. He was to have started fourth in Sunday’s race.

Said car owner Rick Hendrick in a statement: “Jimmie has handled this situation like the champion he is. We’re relieved he isn’t showing symptoms and that Chani is doing great, and we know he’ll be back and ready to go very soon. It’s going to be difficult for him to be out of the car and away from his team, but it’s the right thing to do for Jimmie and everyone involved.”

NASCAR announced that it has granted Johnson a playoff waiver should he win a race before the playoffs begin. NASCAR also stated:

“Following the guidelines outlined in the Event Operations Protocol manual, Jimmie Johnson has alerted NASCAR that he has tested positive for COVID-19.

“NASCAR has outlined the steps for Johnson’s return, in accordance with the CDC’s current guidelines, which includes that Johnson is symptom free and has two negative COVID-19 test results, at least 24 hours apart. NASCAR requires Johnson to be cleared by his physician before returning to racing.

“Jimmie is a true battle-tested champion, and we wish him well in his recovery. NASCAR has granted Jimmie a playoff waiver, and we look forward to his return as he races for an eighth NASCAR Cup Series championship.”

Hendrick Motorsports stated that as a precaution, it identified one member of the No. 48 traveling crew to self-quarantine due to close contact with Johnson.

Last month Stewart-Haas Racing confirmed that two employees had tested positive for coronavirus. Team Penske confirmed last month that one of its employees tested positive.

Hendrick Motorsports stated that it has implemented detailed procedures to protect the health of its team members. That includes daily COVID-19 screenings at the team facilities; the separation of facility operations and traveling personnel; split work schedules; stringent face covering and social distancing requirements; and an increased level of disinfecting and sanitization of all work areas.

The announcement about Johnson came shortly after Major League Baseball announced Friday that 31 players have tested positive. Nineteen different teams had at least one player test positive.

This comes as the nation sees a surge in coronavirus cases. The United States reported more than 55,000 new COVID-19 cases on Thursday, a daily global record. Global coronavirus cases exceeded 11 million on Friday, according to a Reuters tally.

This weekend’s Cup, Xfinity and IndyCar races at Indianapolis Motor Speedway will be held without fans because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Where Are They Now? Catching up with Casey Mears

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There are certain days most people never forget: their anniversaries, their children’s birthdays and for race car drivers, their first win.

These days Casey Mears may live 2,100 miles away from Charlotte Motor Speedway, but he was there in spirit for last weekend’s Coca-Cola 600.

Mears won NASCAR’s longest race in 2007. He was in the right place at the right time, taking the lead from Denny Hamlin late in the race and hanging on for the final six laps – the only laps he led all day – for the win.

Casey Mears celebrates after winning the 2007 Coca-Cola 600. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

“It was definitely the high point of my career, for sure,” Mears told NBC Sports. “I remember everything about that night.

“The one thing – and it’s not a regret – but it’s unfortunate that it ended up being a fuel-mileage race because we had a very fast car that night and ran inside the top 10 and top five the majority of the night.

“We probably weren’t going to win it, but we had a good shot at a top five and were going to be in the hunt. (Crew chief Darian Grubb) made a great call and we won the race, which was amazing for several different reasons.

“I mean, obviously winning in Charlotte, the 600 is the longest race, winning on Memorial Day weekend, which is a huge week for my family and then also being sponsored by the National Guard at that time. It was just a big night.”

While the 600 was his only Cup win, Mears also recalls several other key moments of his career, including runner-up finishes in 2006 at the Daytona 500 and later that year at Kansas.

“That night at Charlotte was a huge part of my career but some of the stuff that I feel like we earned on speed which was really cool were, we sat on the pole at Indy, did well at places like Chicago, Pocono and Michigan, being competitive and leading laps at places like Atlanta and Homestead, going back and forth with Tony Stewart at Atlanta one year.

“Some of those big moments in my career weren’t necessarily the only parts that stand out. The moments I remember the most were when we had competitive race cars and when we were on the verge of getting those wins and getting real close.”

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Mears lives in the Phoenix area with his family. It’s also where he met his wife, Trisha.

“We always said that when the NASCAR things slowed down, we’d like to be back out this way,” Mears told NBC Sports. “So we picked up and moved the kids and came out to Phoenix. We’re loving it, and I’m really enjoying spending a lot of time with them. I’ve also been fortunate to reconnect with some of my off-road racing buddies since I’ve been out here.”

This is the off-road truck Casey Mears co-drove in last year’s NORRA Mexican Baja 1000. (Photo courtesy Casey Mears)

Mears may be gone from NASCAR, but he’s still taking part in other forms of racing part-time, including off-road competition like the NORRA Mexican Baja 1000 last year with Lynn Chenoweth. Casey’s father Roger drove for Chenoweth back in the 1960s and 1970s, and also is part of Robby Gordon’s Stadium Super Trucks Series.

“I also hang out with (NBC IndyCar analyst and former racer Paul Tracy) and drive his Lamborghini sports car, just taking it on the track and sliding around, just having fun,” Mears said. “If opportunities come around, I’d love to race some more.

“I really, really enjoyed racing out in the desert, doing off road stuff. I’d also love to get involved in some sports car stuff as well if there’s an opportunity.

“I love what I’m being able to do right now, just dabble. Playing in Robby’s series, that’s been a blast and picking up random off road, desert opportunities. But racing’s racing, it always boils down to the dollars and cents and sponsors or finding some guy that just wants to go racing and spend some money and have fun. It’s few and far between these days.”

Even though Mears has moved on from NASCAR, he admits he misses it.

“I was fortunate to get to do it for about 15 years,” Mears said. “I lived that life and it really becomes almost the opposite. Your family and friends end up being all the people on the road and people at home become extended friends and family, you’re on the road so much.

“For sure I miss a lot of the people that you saw week in and week out. I definitely miss the competition. I don’t think I’ll ever not miss being in a race car because, like so many others in the sport, I didn’t really get to go out on my own terms.

“For so many people, the sport decides it for you before you’re ready to decide not to do it. I think I’ll always have that desire to want to get in a car again.

“But the one thing that helped me make this decision to move to Phoenix is that I didn’t want to be one of those guys that lingered in the sport either. I didn’t want to be with a back marker program and not be able to be competitive and that’s kind of probably what would have happened. I would have stuck around and would have gotten into something I probably really didn’t need to be in.”

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Mears made 489 career Cup starts, his last full-time season being in 2016. He came back for a start last year for Germain Racing in the season-opening Daytona 500. He started 40th and finished 40th, involved in a crash just past the halfway point.

Mears also made 107 Xfinity Series starts, earning his lone series win in 2016 at Chicagoland Speedway.

He still keeps his hand in NASCAR somewhat, just not on a steering wheel. He does promotional work for Phoenix Raceway and visits his former chums each time NASCAR comes to town.

Casey Mears, right, remains good friends with a number of his former teammates, including seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson. (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)

He also keeps in regular contact with close friends and former teammates and bosses including Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Chip Ganassi, Rick Hendrick, Bob Germain and Doug Barnette.

But moving on from being a race car driver, pretty much the only thing he had known for more than 30 years since being a kid growing up in Bakersfield, California, gave Mears pause.

“This move really forced me to figure out what’s next in life,” he said. “I’m 42 years old and although I’ve done well and been very fortunate, but I need to do something.”

He’s looking at a variety of business opportunities in the Phoenix area, primarily in the automotive industry.

“I feel very fortunate to have the career that I’ve had in the sport,” Mears said. “I drove for a lot of real good teams and programs and learned a lot from a lot of people.

“The people I got to race with and learn from just from the business standpoint is going to help me later in my career with whatever’s next. I had some great opportunities and will always miss it, but at the same time, I’m looking forward to the future and what’s next.”

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Storylines: What will NASCAR’s top free agents do?

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When the Cup season started, some wondered if what happened off the track would overshadow the racing.

They pondered that because this year’s free agent class ranks as one of the largest in NASCAR’s history and could alter the sport’s landscape. 

With Jimmie Johnson announcing that this would be his final full-time Cup season, the suitors for the No. 48 car at Hendrick Motorsports are many.

A former champion and two other drivers who won races last season are among those with contracts set to expire after this season. Other drivers who have won in the past or come close to doing so also are available.

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Even with some changes since March, free agency remains among the key storylines as the NASCAR season resumes Sunday at Darlington Raceway (3:30 p.m. ET on FOX).

Two impending free agents are off the list.

Team Penske announced March 6 that Ryan Blaney had signed a multi-year extension. Alex Bowman announced Saturday a one-year extension with Hendrick Motorsports.

Another free agent’s future is unclear.

Kyle Larson, viewed by social media as the favorite to take over Johnson’s seat at Hendrick Motorsports, is without a ride. Chip Ganassi Racing fired Larson on April 14 after he said a racial slur during an iRacing event. Larson remains indefinitely suspended by NASCAR. The team signed Matt Kenseth for the rest of this year.

With Blaney and Bowman signed, and Larson seemingly out of the mix at this time, the top free agents are former Cup champion Brad Keselowski, Erik Jones, Matt DiBenedetto, Clint Bowyer and Aric Almirola.

FREE AGENCY SCORECARDWho remains in contract years for Cup

Keselowski, who starts on the pole at Darlington, is in his 11th full-time season at Team Penske and has won at least three races a year each of the past four seasons.

“I’ve made no decisions and had no meaningful talks because right now the entire industry is about survival and does not really have the opportunity today to look past surviving the next few weeks,” Keselowski told NBC Sports this week on if he had moved closer to determining where he’ll race in 2021.

“I hope to have those conversations. I hope they go really well. I think they will. But I haven’t had a single conversation to that regard.”

Bowman’s stock had risen with his victory earlier this season at Auto Club Speedway when he and his team dominated the weekend. 

With NASCAR wanting to run 32 Cup races over the next 25 weeks, it could be challenging at times for teams to complete negotiations.

Another key for some teams will be sponsorship for next season with many businesses significantly impacted by the coronavirus outbreak. How much sponsorship a driver can bring to some rides could prove key. Johnson’s ride at Hendrick Motorsports is an exception with Ally signed through 2023 as the primary sponsor.

With the uncertainty of sponsorships, some deals could be pushed back later in the season, even later than deals were completed a year ago.

It wasn’t until last September when some driver deals were announced with DiBenedetto heading to the Wood Brothers for this season and Jones signing a one-year extension at Joe Gibbs Racing.

October had the announcements that Almirola and Bowyer were returning to Stewart-Haas Racing for this season, and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was headed to JTG Daughtery Racing.

Other drivers who have contracts expiring after this season include Ty Dillon, Bubba Wallace and Corey LaJoie, who gave car owner Rick Hendrick a handwritten letter in January at the NASCAR Hall of Fame induction ceremony, expressing his desire to be considered for the No. 48 ride after this season.

“This was the first time I’ve gotten a letter from the heart,” Hendrick told NBC Sports in February. “I’ve gotten letters and phones calls, usually from agents. It was really a heartfelt letter and it was really personal.

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

Whether it’s enough for LaJoie join the organization remains to be seen. That’s just among the decisions to be made not only at Hendrick Motorsports but Joe Gibbs Racing, Team Penske, Stewart-Haas Racing and elsewhere on what their driver lineups for next season will be.

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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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