TriStar Motorsports

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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Friday 5: Jeffrey Earnhardt ready for challenge of winning Xfinity races

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HUNTERSVILLE, N.C. — Jeffrey Earnhardt sighs and says “too long.”

He rests his head in his hand and stares ahead.

“It’s been too long,” Earnhardt says since he last won a race. “Hell, I can’t remember. That’s pretty sad. It’s been a while.”

A journey that started with racing a Yugo — yes, a Yugo — and later moved from small team to small team in NASCAR, now has its reward more than a decade later.

Earnhardt will drive in nine Xfinity races for Joe Gibbs Racing this season, beginning with the Feb. 16 season opener at Daytona International Speedway. 

The expectations are high — “it’s wins or nothing” he saidbut the pressure can’t compare to what Earnhardt faced to reach this point.

“The pressure to go and get in a car that is capable of winning, that’s the pressure I’ve been looking for my whole life,” he said, wearing a black Joe Gibbs Racing T-shirt in a conference room at the team’s Cup headquarters.

Instead, the pressure has been to survive in the sport. Beginning with the Yugo.

He begged his father for a couple of years to let him race. His dad eventually relented, saying Earnhardt could compete if he found a car and sponsorship to pay for it. Earnhardt got the Yugo and sponsorship for it.

He never won in that car. But he didn’t drive it long.

“I ended up flipping it,” Earnhardt said of a race at Wythe Raceway in Rural Retreat, Virginia. “Because it was so slow. A guy shoved me off in the corner and turned me sideways and another car came and hit the front end of the car … and turned me head-on into the outside wall. Flipped. Landed on its roof.

“I was like, ‘Man, this thing is going to catch on fire.’ I’d seen too many movies. I ended up getting my shoelace hung on the brake pedal and didn’t think I was going to make it out alive. Everyone was like, ‘You’re fine, we’ve got you.’ ”

He thought everything would be fine when he joined Dale Earnhardt Inc. and drove in what is now the K&N Pro Series East Series in 2007-08.

“Signed a four-year contract at 17 years old and thought, this is going to be a walk in the park,” Earnhardt told NBC Sports. “Everything is going to be taken care of.”

But his ride went away after DEI merged with Chip Ganassi Racing in November 2008. The struggle to find rides began. Earnhardt ran one K&N Pro Series East race and two Xfinity races in 2009. He ran five Truck races in 2010. In 2011, he drove in two Xfinity races and five Truck races.

Earnhardt fought in one MMA bout in 2012 — he won — but realized afterward that he still wanted to race.

“I did the MMA thing to try to find something that gave me that rush that I get in a race car and it still wasn’t the equivalent,” Earnhardt said.

He continued to search for rides.

“What my grandfather did and his legacy means the world to me,” Earnhardt said of the late Dale Earnhardt. “I would hate to not think that I gave literally everything I possibly could to make it continue.”

He’s driven in 151 races in Cup, Xfinity and Trucks but never with a team that could compete for wins. His best Xfinity finish is 12th at Bristol (2014) and Talladega (2015). His best Cup finish is 11th in last July’s Daytona race.

With JGR, top 10s should be common. Earnhardt will drive the No. 18, a car that won twice last year with Ryan Preece at Bristol and Kyle Busch at Pocono and saw Noah Gragson finish second with in his Xfinity debut at Richmond last year.

“I was talking on the phone with my manager and I was like, I’ve gone from the struggle of trying to keep the car under me for the whole entire race and not wreck to now the struggle is going to be those late-race restarts when you’re on the front row,” Earnhardt said. “That’s a new challenge, it’s a good challenge.”

2. Reversal of fortune

What would have happened had NASCAR disqualified cars last year that failed inspection after a race instead of doing it this season?

Two Cup races would have had different winners.

Kyle Busch would have finished the season with a series-high nine wins instead of being tied with Kevin Harvick at eight.

Harvick would have lost his win at Las Vegas after his car was found to have an issue with the rear window during an inspection at NASCAR’s R&D Center. That would have given Busch, the runner-up, the win.

Also, Harvick would have lost his Texas win for an issue with the spoiler — also discovered at the R&D Center. But runner-up Ryan Blaney was penalized because his car failed inspection and the win would have gone to Joey Logano, who finished third in that race.

Nine cars that finished in the top four in a Cup race last year failed inspection after the event and would have been disqualified under this year’s rules.

3. Disqualification penalty appeals

Should a vehicle be disqualified after failing inspection after the race, the team can appeal. They will have to pay a non-refundable appeal filing fee of $5,000.

Unlike a regular appeal, which features a panel of three people, the race disqualification appeal will be heard by one person. It could be one of the 28 people listed in the rule book as appeal panelists or it could be the Final Appeal Officer or their alternate.

One thing to note in this particular type of case is that the decision of that one panelist is final. The decision cannot be appealed to the Final Appeal Officer.

4. Charter transfers

With a new season, comes the transfer of charters in Cup.

Six of the 36 charters have changed teams for this season.

The charter that was with BK Racing’s No. 23 car last year, which Front Row Motorsports purchased, will be with the No. 38 car of David Ragan.

The charter that had been with Ragan’s team goes to teammate Matt Tifft. Front Row Motorsports added a car, growing to a third team this season.

The charter with Richard Petty Motorsport’s No. 43 car with Bubba Wallace goes to Rick Ware Racing and will be aligned with the No. 51 car and driven by B.J. McLeod in the Daytona 500.

The charter that was with Rick Ware Racing’s No. 51 car last year goes to RPM’s No. 43 car this season.

Furniture Row Racing’s charter was purchased by Spire Motorsports and be used with the No. 77 car. That will be No. 40 for Jamie McMurray in the Daytona 500 and then go back to No. 77 the rest of the season. 

The charter that had been with the No. 72 car of TriStar Motorsports moves to the No. 52 car at Rick Ware Racing.

5. Rule changes

NASCAR came out with a bulletin this week that updated its rule book.

Among some of the changes:

— Drivers must have all four tires below the orange box at the commitment line to enter pit road. That had been the case last year at all tracks except Martinsville. Drivers needed to only put two tires under the orange box there. Now, they will have to adjust at Martinsville.

— A pit crew member’s foot must not touch pit road before the vehicle is one pit box away from its assigned pit box or the equivalent marked distance. Should a crew member’s foot or both feet touch the pit road surface too early, the pit crew member can re-establish their position back to or behind the pit wall before servicing the car to avoid a penalty.

— A sixth person can go over the wall during a pit stop but that person’s duties are limited to servicing the driver in their health and well-being, assisting with safety systems, window net, helmet and cooling ventilation hose, radio system replacement, steering wheel wiring, providing personal medical supplies and cleaning the windshield. Such a person, though, is not allowed to help repair the body and/or mechanical components on the car.

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Cole Whitt steps aways from racing after Phoenix Cup race

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Sunday’s Cup race at ISM Raceway was the last NASCAR race for Cole Whitt, TriStar Motorsports announced on social media after the race.

The team said Whitt, 27, “has elected to hang up his helmet and step away from his life behind the wheel.”

A native of Alpine, California, Whitt has made 242 starts across NASCAR’s three national series since 2010. Sunday’s race was his 161st Cup start. He finished 25th.

Whitt said before the season he was “looking forward to taking the next step” in his life “and trying to spend most of my time with my family.”

Last month, Whitt told frontstretch.com “It’s been a slow, steady drive of me to get away from racing and move back to be around family and friends and to live a normal life. That’s been a drive for the past couple of years.”

Whitt competed full-time in Cup from 2014-15 and 2017.

Whitt split time this year in the No. 72 Chevrolet with Corey LaJoie, making 13 starts.

The best season of Whitt’s career came in 2012 in the Xfinity Series. Driving the No. 88 for JR Motorsports, Whitt earned four top fives, 14 top 10s and finished seventh in the standings.

 

Bankruptcy judge approves sale of BK Racing to Front Row Motorsports

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — A day after he put his team in Chapter 11 bankruptcy, BK Racing owner Ron Devine alternated between being combative and conciliatory as he spoke to reporters outside his hauler in the Daytona International Speedway garage.

Losses in the millions, a pile of debt and a bank eager to get more than $8 million back in loans and accrued interest led Devine to go to court to protect his team and its charter — the one item that gave his underfunded team its greatest value.

The paperwork was filed, according to court documents, about 30 minutes before a Feb. 15 hearing in Mecklenburg County Superior Court. That hearing was in regards to Union Bank & Trust’s request of a receiver to operate BK Racing and a preliminary injunction to prevent the team from selling or leasing its charter.

“We’ll get it resolved,” Devine said 48 hours before the Daytona 500. “I promise you, we will get it resolved. The bank wants it resolved, and I want it resolved. We will get it resolved. And I’ll see you in Homestead (for the season finale).

“We will be in Homestead.”

Devine was right six months ago. It got resolved.

But left him without a team.

Judge J. Craig Whitley approved the sale of BK Racing — a team Devine helped bring to Cup in 2012 — to Front Row Motorsports for $2.08 million on Thursday.

In announcing his decision, Whitley called the matter “just a bad situation and we’re doing the best we can with it. I don’t expect anybody to be delighted by it, but it is what it is.”

Devine and the team’s engine supplier objected to the sale Thursday. During an early recess, Devine spoke with the attorney for Union Bank & Trust. After the brief discussion, Devine shook his head, walked away and said: “Then that will do it. Jesus Christ.”

Devine and the team’s engine builder urged the judge to let the team continue through the rest of the season and be sold then. Devine stated that he would be an interested buyer then. Devine, it was noted in court, had made an unqualified bid to get the team back.

On the stand, Devine made a last-minute appeal to the judge not to sell the team: “This is wrong to occur during the season. There is the ability to run the team through the end of the season.”

Devine called it a “misconception that this team is on the brink of collapse.”

Trustee Matt Smith, appointed by the court to take over the team from Devine in late March, said Thursday morning on the stand that “cash continues to be very, very tight.”

Smith also said on the stand that “without sponsorship, I run about $30,000 to $50,000 in the hole” per race. Smith expressed concerns that he would be able to run the team through the end of the season.

The charter requires teams to compete each weekend. If the team missed races, it would allow NASCAR to take the charter back and leave BK Racing with little value. While Smith and many others expressed disappointment that the bidding didn’t generate any more money, Smith recommended the sale take place.

When Devine questioned Smith on cross examination about how long it took for him to provide info on the team’s financial status, Smith said: “The business records you had were atrocious.”

After the hearing, Devine said: “That trustee at the very least ought to be embarrassed. He should have stopped it with one bidder. I just think he was in over his head.”

The judge didn’t see it that way and awarded the charter and assets to Front Row Motorsports. The judge also approved the sale of equipment and 19 chassis (primarily in storage and in various stages of readiness) for $265,000 to Obaika Racing and a hauler to Rick Ware Racing for $35,000.

Front Row Motorsports gets BK Racing’s charter, which guarantees a starting spot in every race and a set amount of money per event, and some of its assets, including the cars it is running. Front Row Motorsports was expected to close on the sale as early as Thursday afternoon. All of BK Racing’s employees will be retained as part of the agreement.

Front Row Motorsports now owns both charters that went to BK Racing when the charter system was created before the 2016 season. BK Racing sold a charter to Front Row Motorsports in December 2016 for $2 million, a sale that did not include any other assets.

Front Row Motorsports, a Ford team will run the former BK Racing team, a Toyota team, as a separate entity through the end of the season.

Jerry Freeze, general manager of Front Row Motorsports who attended court Thursday, said the team will not change manufacturers after this season. He also said he did not know who the driver of the BK team will be for next weekend’s Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway. Or if the car number will change from No. 23 to No. 35, a number Front Row Motorsports has used for a third entry at times.

Freeze said the team wants to expand to three full-time cars but admits it will be challenging to find the sponsorship at this point to do so for next year. An option for the team would be to lease two of its charters to other teams — it already leases a charter to TriStar Motorsports and could continue that relationship. Charters can be leased once every five years.

“You’ve got to imagine we’ve been assessing the market for who would need to lease a charter next year and who might be interested in buying one of the other charters that we have,” Freeze said after the hearing. “So we think there’s a market out there for sure. It was worth taking the chance and opportunity to see if we could get this one.”

Front Row Motorsports’ bid topped a bid from Mike Beam, president of GMS Racing.

That a Cup team’s fate was settled in a U.S. Bankruptcy courtroom showed how far BK Racing had fallen. Six weeks after Devine filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy, he lost control of the team when Smith was assigned as trustee. Devine called the judge’s action then “a sad day for BK.’’

It wouldn’t have to come to that had the team been more fiscally responsible. Court documents show that team lost $29.5 million from 2014-16. Court documents show that the team “budgeted” for a loss of $1.358 million in 2017 in what was described as a “skeletal budget.”

Then, there was the millions owed Union Bank & Trust for the numerous loans (now up to more than $9 million). The IRS filed court documents on March 12 that stated it had a secured claim of $2.5 million and a priority claim of $328,792.47 owed. A former employee and current employee at the time testified in March about having paychecks bounce last year. A former employee said he had a paycheck bounce in September 2017, November 2017 and December 2017 before leaving the team.

In May, court documents listed secured claims against the team at $31.6 million. That included $15 million to the Virginia Racers Group, which included Devine and started the team. Court documents also listed unsecured claims at $773,569.17 and non-priority unsecured claims at more than $5 million.

Smith decided this summer that it was in the best interest to sell the team.

“One of the reasons, and I know that Mr. Devine is in the room and probably doesn’t want to hear this, but I think one of the reasons this team is in trouble is it had the wrong owner,” Smith said in court on July 26. “So I believe the right owner, transition of ownership, would be the best thing for this team.”

Smith stated that day that “the cash flow (for the team) is exceptionally tight” and questioned then about going beyond the end of the season.

With all the money spent, BK Racing rarely ran anywhere close to the front. The organization, which fielded up to four cars at times, had three top-10 finishes in its history.

Sunday, in its last race as BK Racing, Blake Jones finished 27th, 15 laps behind the leaders. Only three other cars that made it to the finish ran fewer laps than Jones.

“It’s a tough business,” Devine said in February at Daytona when asked why he didn’t align with another team to help defray costs. “I think it’s an expensive learning curve. I also think … you’ve got to decide where you are taking the company and I took it down a very independent route, which probably wasn’t the smartest (thing).”

But Devine was not deterred Thursday. As he stood outside the federal courthouse awaiting an Uber ride to the airport, he said he still wanted to be in NASCAR as an owner.

“I’ve got other options,” he said.

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Corey LaJoie, Cole Whitt to drive No. 72 for TriStar Motorsports in Cup

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TriStar Motorsports will field its No. 72 Chevrolet in the Cup Series again this year with Corey LaJoie and Cole Whitt sharing seat time in the car, the team announced Tuesday.

LaJoie, who drove for BK Racing last year, will be the primary driver. Whitt, who piloted the No. 72 full-time last season, has elected to scale back his schedule to shift his focus.

The team has leased a charter from Front Row Motorsports, ensuring the No. 72 a starting spot in all 36 points races.

LaJoie, 26, is the son of two-time Xfinity Series champion Randy LaJoie. He will drive the No. 72 in the Feb. 18 Daytona 500.  He enters the season with 34 Cup starts and a best finish of 11th in last year’s July race at Daytona.

“It’s such a great opportunity to work with TriStar Motorsports,” LaJoie said in a press release. “I hope to use the learning experiences from my 2017 rookie season and work hard for some great finishes this year. It’s my goal to continue building a successful team with (team owner) Bryan (Smith), while honoring the legacy his dad, Mark, left behind.”

Whitt, 26, has 148 Cup starts since 2011. Last year was his third full-time season in the series. His best finish last season was 12th in the Brickyard 400.

“I want to thank TriStar and the Smith family for allowing me to do something I feel is the right decision for me and my family,” Whitt said in a press release. “I am excited and a little nervous to say that I will be racing a limited schedule this year. I am looking forward to taking the next step in my life and trying to spend most of my time with my family. Stepping back from racing is a hard choice but I strongly believe this is the right path. TriStar has been an amazing blessing to me and my family and I look forward to what the future holds for both of us.”

The season will mark the team’s first full year since the death of former owner Mark Smith in July. His son Bryan Smith took over control of the team, which has competed in NASCAR since 1989.

“We are taking a different approach with our competitive platform for 2018 by utilizing two drivers,” Bryan Smith said in a press release. “It is an opportunity we feel is the best direction for this season and accommodates the goals of both drivers as well as the team. We are more than pleased with Cole’s efforts in 2017 and are extremely glad to have him back this season. He has been an integral part of our return to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series and we appreciate his contributions to our team. We are equally as pleased to add Corey to our driver roster. His attitude, desire and ability are a welcomed addition and we feel he will be a great fit. We feel both drivers embody the core elements of who we are as a team and are confident each will contribute to the betterment of our program.”

TriStar will announce sponsorship and its plans in the Xfinity Series at a later date.