Corey LaJoie’s ‘Hail Mary’ victory bid comes up just short at Atlanta

HAMPTON, Ga. — Corey LaJoie’s last-ditch bid for his first NASCAR Cup Series victory went south Sunday in a final-lap crash at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

LaJoie led three times for a career-best 19 laps, but gave way to eventual winner Chase Elliott on the next-to-last lap of the Quaker State 400. LaJoie battled back in the Spire Motorsports No. 7 Chevrolet, but his high-side move was rebuffed by Elliott’s No. 9 Chevy.

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LaJoie made contact with the outside retaining wall, and several other cars piled into the tangle. The caution flag ended the race, freezing the field with Elliott just ahead of runner-up Ross Chastain. LaJoie wound up 21st in the 36-car field.

LaJoie had signaled in an interview with earlier in the week that his approach at the 1.54-mile Georgia track would be to “throw a Hail Mary and steal one.” He almost did, jumping up into the lead spot with a fuel-only pit stop late in the 400-mile event and staying at the front of the pack as the laps trickled down.

If it was caution free, he probably would’ve been in trouble on fuel,” No. 7 crew chief Ryan Sparks said. “But I just had to kind of build him up and, you know, coach him through it, make sure he’s doing all the right things lifting, trying to save fuel when he can. You know, I haven’t had to call a race like that in a long time, so definitely felt good to be up there and gave me a little more confidence in our efforts and, you know, just excited to keep moving on, keep moving forward.”

Both Sparks and LaJoie mentioned that confidence was gained throughout the race, and Sparks made it clear that Sunday’s end result is nothing to hang their heads about.

Super proud of, you know, everybody… it’s a lot of work for 30 people to bring Cup cars to the race track and be able to contend for a win like that,” Sparks said. “Obviously, a superspeedway increases that opportunity and we’ll try to take advantage of another at Daytona here in a few weeks.”

In reference to Daytona, LaJoie said his experience being up front in last year’s race should help.

“We were second coming to the white flag there last year, and I definitely was a rookie in that situation. Going to Daytona, we’re not using that car that was going to the junkyard,” LaJoie said. “But I’m sure that those guys, though, had the thing built and handled well and we’re going to have another solid game plan and execute like today. And hopefully we’re in the top two or three rows in the pay window again.”

This was the second time Cup Series drivers experienced the new configuration of Atlanta Motor Speedway. LaJoie came away from it reiterating his pride in Sunday’s performance although it wasn’t the happy ending to an underdog story.

“Obviously, it’s a bit of an equalizer. You know, people can discredit what we did today all they want. I know enough about the narrative,” LaJoie said. “You know, the guy that runs sixth is trying no less hard than the guy running first. (It’s like) playing chess with cars. Now you’re not dancing with the paddles and you’re not hanging it out and you’re not trying to find every morsel of grit. But there’s some heart to it.”

Contributing: Staff reports