NASCAR Cup Series
Denny Hamlin 'At My Peak' with Ross Chastain after Atlanta
Jul 11, 2022
Corey Lajoie didn’t come to Atlanta Motor Speedway to run second.
He didn’t come to the newly-redesigned high-banked intermediate to push Chase Elliott to the win and he’s 'been there, done that,' with running second, finishing fifth and doing anything other than standing in victory lane after the checkered flag.
So Lajoie wasn’t going to make it easy for Elliott to pass him on the final restart and he wasn’t going to just follow him to the finish line, either.
He sent it into Turn 1 and Elliott threw a late block. The result was Lajoie into the wall, spinning out of contention, and a race-ending caution that sent Elliott to Victory Lane.
"I’ll watch it back probably a hundred times then I’ll replay it a hundred times in my head on the way back on the plane," Lajoie said. "I don’t think I’d choose another thing right now because I was going for it and I was not content to push the 9 to the win. There’s a little bit of a Chevy line, a little Hendrick help here and there, but I didn’t come here to be a good friend."
Lajoie, 30, is a third-generation racer and son of two-time Busch Grand National champion, Randy. The Spire Motorsports team he drives for doesn’t have the same resources as Hendrick Motorsports and the other powerhouses of the sport, even with every organization now on the identical Next Gen platform.
The only chance Lajoie has to realistically contend come at Daytona, Talladega and Atlanta where he has run second, finished
fifth and battled for wins over the past calendar year. He viewed Sunday as checkers or wreckers scenario and his No. 7 car ended up on the back of a flatbed.
"I am more content finishing 21st and wadded up than I am finishing second or third," Lajoie said. "It would have paid better but it doesn’t matter."
Lajoie controlled the final restart but just couldn’t hold off Elliott with a push from Erik Jones on the penultimate lap. The push from Ross Chastain behind him came a lap later and the block from the 2020 Cup Series champion was the decisive moment of the race.
"You have to win the race," Lajoie said. "Everything is fair. Especially with how much weight is on it, how much money is on it, you have to win the race. With how much finishing fifth paid last time, you have to win the race. You have to block, you have to bump, you have to send it in there and if you don't, whatever happens is your fault, because the next guy will."
And Elliott wholeheartedly agreed.
"I certainly expected that," Elliott said. "That’s what you’re supposed to do, right? We’re going for the win."
Elliott said he hated throwing that kind of block and wouldn't have done that earlier in the race, but he had to make one of two choices
-He lets Lajoie go and a caution prevents him from attempting to retake the lead
-He throws a block and it either stalls Lajoie or that causes the crash that ends the race.
"I don’t know how you know exactly what choice to make in that situation," Elliott said. "I mean, a guy is coming with a massive run. Am I taking the chance of crashing when I threw it up in front of him? Absolutely, but I didn’t think I was going to get another shot at him if he let him grab the lead right there."
That's awfully fatalistic but Lajoie took no umbridge with what Elliott did either.
"Listen, it was a block, but it's the last lap of the race and with Dawsonville's finest, you just have to go for it," Lajoie said. "That's also the advantage of being the leader in that you can throw that block on the guy in second and then cover the guy in third, too.
"You have to be in control of the race, because the runs don't come as quick as they used to, they're easier to cover and we did everything we were supposed to do to be in position when the pay window opened."
The grace in which Lajoie handled the defeat was noticed by Hendrick Motorsports vice chairman Jeff Gordon as well.
"I like Corey's attitude, and I like his drive," Gordon said. "He has a lot of passion and he showed that today. It's unfortunate how it ended up for him, but I thought he, his team and their car showed a lot today. You want a guy like that, who has the pedigree, work ethic and passion to get the opportunity he's searching for.
"I think today will go a long way towards that."
Lajoie carries with him a lot of swagger and confidence, but he concedes that driving for so many underfunded teams over the past decade has him occasionally wondering if he’s meant to do this. Sure, this was a superspeedway race, but he said there were 35 other drivers out there too, and he had them beat coming to the white flag on this Sunday in Hampton, Georgia.
That doesn’t mean nothing.
"Confidence as a driver is the most important commodity and you can’t go to the store and find it," Lajoie said. "You can’t go to the simulator and find it. It’s like having confidence in your guys, having confidence in the cars we’re building. You have confidence in your own ability. Like it all is a cake that we’re continuing to see. Like Ross (Chastain), right? Like a guy like that, even Daniel (Suarez) runs sixth again.
"It’s like when you get kicked in the dick 32 weeks out of the year, it is hard to muster up confidence in what you think you can do in a race car."
And on Sunday at Atlanta, despite every reason it looked like it, this wasn’t a kick in the pants.