The last time NASCAR visited Atlanta Motor Speedway, Corey LaJoie was celebrating a top-five finish shortly after sliding across the infield grass with a split-second flight thrown in for good measure.
Well, maybe not celebrating. But he was certainly relishing his best finish of the year five races into the 2022 campaign.
“I wasn’t spraying champagne over anybody,” LaJoie said in a Tuesday teleconference of his result. “But you know, certainly anytime you get a top five in the Cup Series, man, it’s way harder than people think. I’ve been doing this for a long time and those don’t come very often, especially having a strong car like we did there.”
At the midpoint of the season, that fifth-place effort remains LaJoie’s best in what has been a trying year for the driver of the No. 7 Spire Motorsports Chevrolet. LaJoie sits 31st in points after 18 races and ranks the same in average running position (27.719).
That’s led to a higher focus on Sunday’s race at Atlanta Motor Speedway (3 p.m. ET, USA Network, NBC Sports App, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio), where LaJoie feels he can make a difference.
Typically, his conservative style on superspeedway tracks has led to good finishes. That was the case in the debut race of Atlanta’s new configuration, which features higher banking, tighter corners and the sanctioning body’s superspeedway rules package around the 1.5-mile track. But good finishes won’t be enough if LaJoie has any hopes of qualifying for this year’s playoffs.
“I think we’re gonna change the strategy up a bit because I think we have to go to win,” he said. “I think a top five day doesn’t cut it. It really doesn’t. And we’ve shot ourselves in the foot for the last six, seven weeks here with a lot of mechanical failures and not running near to our potential as a race team. But, you know, if it’s a superspeedway, we have to go attack and be in position to throw a Hail Mary and steal one.”
Indeed, the last seven weeks have been dismal for LaJoie and Co., who have finished 34th or worse in five of the last seven races. The team’s Achilles’ heel has been mechanical reliability, most recently in the last two road-course events. At Sonoma, LaJoie’s car suffered from a steering fitting failure. Last week at Road America, a T-bar in the steering rack broke before the green flag waved.
“Some of it’s bad luck; some of it’s being a little bit lean with people and processes,” LaJoie said. “Where a lot of teams have blueprints and they take the stuff from the suppliers apart and assemble them back together, that they’re a little more durable. And we don’t have that. You know, we just are trying to get the cars built, let alone fine-tune the parts that we’re getting from the vendors.
“We’ve found out all the little weak links of most of the parts unfortunately. And yeah, it stinks because we are certainly more capable of running considerably better than this.”
That is evidenced by LaJoie’s other finishes this year. Prior to his recent downturn, he strung together three straight top-20 finishes at Bristol dirt, Talladega and Dover. In the two races not thwarted by issues in this current seven-race span, LaJoie finished 19th at Kansas and 20th at Nashville.
“If we finish the race, we usually finish the top 20,” he said. “That’s just what it’s turned out. Rarely do we finish in the 20s. If our car makes it the whole way, we can be inside the top 20, which is a big goal for us. I think we’re capable. But if you’re sitting behind the wall, I can assure you, you don’t get the seat time learning new cars at whatever track you’re at, nor do you get the opportunity to contend for top 20s. So I can assure you everybody’s on board here trying to figure out how to make our cars last for the entire course of the race because nobody wins in that scenario.”
Atlanta could prove to be a boon for LaJoie, whose five career top-10 finishes all came at superspeedways, including his first career top five back in March. Hotter temperatures may make handling more critical in this week’s go-around, and teams will enter with a better understanding after many unknowns in the spring. LaJoie just hopes his early-season high mark can be replicated Sunday afternoon.
“Atlanta is absolutely a wild card,” he said. “I know William Byron won the first race, but that really can be anybody’s race if they position themselves right. And, you know, we’ve seen a lot of guys, Austin Cindric win the Daytona 500 being a rookie. We’ve seen Michael McDowell win the 500 last year.
“It’s just as much of a wild card in Atlanta this weekend as any speedway race, so hopefully we can be on the receiving end of a good run.”