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