Corey LaJoie was nearly there.
The 30-year-old driver without a win in any NASCAR national touring series was in the lead of a Cup Series race with seven laps to go at the track where he scored his first career top-five finish four months earlier.
This would be a career-defining race for the son of two-time Xfinity Series champion Randy LaJoie. The younger LaJoie had spent the better part of six years in backmarker Cup Series equipment in hopes the struggles would one day pay off with an opportunity to celebrate in Victory Lane at the sport’s highest level.
Corey LaJoie’s NASCAR career has been a grind
LaJoie showed promise nine years prior as a 21-year-old in the ARCA Menards Series. He won three of the five races he entered in 2013 in cars owned by his father. That led to several part-time rides in the Camping World Truck Series and Xfinity Series across the next several years, as well as a pair of Cup Series races in 2014.
LaJoie eventually caught on full-time with BK Racing in 2017 as the driver of the No. 83 car.
It was a Cup Series opportunity, no doubt, but not a good one. LaJoie managed an 11th-place result in the July race at Daytona International Speedway, which was his only top-20 finish of the season.
The 2017 campaign led to a part-time schedule in the underfunded No. 72 car for TriStar Motorsports the following year in an even worse season. He finished on the lead lap just twice in 23 races.
He moved to a similar one-car operation at Go Fas Racing in 2018 but ran the entire season as the pilot of the No. 32 car. He scored his first two career top-10s. He ran sixth in the July race at Daytona and seventh in the October event at Talladega Superspeedway.
Notice a pattern?
Smaller, underfunded teams often have a better chance at a good finish when the series visits superspeedway tracks such as Daytona and Talladega, as the drafting effect helps the field stay tightly packed.
In fact, each of LaJoie’s first four top-10s came at those two tracks, including a ninth-place run in the 2021 Daytona 500 in his first race in the No. 7 car for his current employer, Spire Motorsports.
Track reconfiguration at Atlanta offered smaller teams an additional chance
LaJoie and drivers in similar situations got another two opportunities on the schedule when Speedway Motorsports, Inc. reconfigured Atlanta Motor Speedway after the 2021 season. The 1.54-mile track gained banking in the corners and received a fresh layer of asphalt that has transformed the track into a circuit that produces superspeedway-style pack racing similar to events at Daytona and Talladega.
Not coincidentally, LaJoie scored his first career top-five result when the Cup Series raced on the new Atlanta surface in March.
That was the lone bright spot of his 2022 season, as he entered the second Atlanta race Sunday 31st in the points standings.
LaJoie’s early Cup Series career mirrored Matt DiBenedetto
LaJoie’s journey to a potential career-best race was similar to current Truck Series driver Matt DiBenedetto, who ran nearly four-and-a-half full-time Cup Series seasons with single-car teams before he finished in the top five in 2019 at Sonoma Raceway.
DiBenedetto scored three more top-10s in the next six races in the No. 95 car for Leavine Family Racing, but that was merely a prelude to the August 2019 night race at Bristol Motor Speedway.
DiBenedetto started seventh but took the lead with 104 laps to go in one of the premier races on the Cup Series schedule. He circled the concrete 0.5-mile track lap after lap before he came upon Ryan Newman in 11th. DiBenedetto made contact as he passed the No. 6 car to put Newman a lap down, and the resulting damage made DiBenedetto’s car get tight.
That allowed Denny Hamlin to run him down and make a pass for the win 12 laps from the finish.
LaJoie led all the way up until the final two laps Sunday when eventual-winner Chase Elliott passed him for the lead. LaJoie tried to retake the lead on the last lap, but Elliott blocked his move on the high side in Turn 2. That sent LaJoie into the wall and led to a crash that ended the race and left LaJoie with a 22nd-place result.
The stat sheet shows yet another finish in the back half of the field for LaJoie. But much like DiBenedetto three years prior at Bristol, Lajoie was the underdog hero of the day even though perennial-winner and Georgia-native Elliott ultimately celebrated at his hometown track.
Stats courtesy of Racing Reference