Through six seasons, Corey LaJoie has managed to make a name for himself as a NASCAR Cup Series driver. Now, he's starting to make his name the way he'd really like to.
More often than not, his relevance came through the curls of his hair or the content of his podcast as opposed to his performance or his abilities as a driver, abilities which have been spent toiling trying to build a small team in Spire Motorsports over the last two seasons.
That toil and trouble has now begun to pay dividends for LaJoie, who is off to the best start to a season that he's had in his Cup career.
LaJoie enjoyed a strong Speedweeks, contending for a win and finishing fifth in his Duel qualifying race before a 16th place finish in the Daytona 500. But his run at Fontana, where he was a fixture in the top 15 throughout the day and finished 14th, impressed many and has suggested an upward trajectory for LaJoie and his Spire Motorsports team -- something which continued with another top 20 run at Las Vegas and has allowed him to remain 18th in points despite a 26th place run at Phoenix slowing some of his momentum.
Speaking to CBS Sports, LaJoie shared that Spire Motorsports has strengthened its working relationship with Hendrick Motorsports, which has availed the team to better underwing scans and body builds as well as better tire data and more simulation time -- all of which has meant faster cars and better preparation.
"It's come from sitting on faster horses. And faster horses kind of breed confidence going to the racetrack as opposed to finding it halfway through the event," LaJoie told CBS Sports. "Unloading knowing the thing's gonna have some grip and it's not gonna get on a bumpstop wacky and end up in the fence, all that stuff plays a factor with how much commitment you pile it off in the corner with."
At the beginning of NASCAR's Next Gen era last year, LaJoie was bullish about the leap Spire Motorsports could take as an organization. That bullishness was tempered by mistakes in execution that kept him and his race team from reaching their potential on most weekends. Mechanical issues and unforced errors -- including from the driver's seat by LaJoie -- were a recurring problem, and they contributed to LaJoie having eight total DNFs in 2022.
This season, those errors have been cleaned up. As a result, LaJoie has begun to run about where he believes his still-young and small team can as they continue to grow.
"I think that right now is fairly close to the ceiling. I think a run like Fontana is overachieving," LaJoie said. "Really on paper in terms of budget and personnel, the amount of personnel, we're probably 30th to 32nd. So if we're beating 10 people, we're really punching above our weight class.
"But I think how I feel like I stack up as a race car driver right now in my career, and where I think the amount of knowledge and tools that (crew chief Ryan Sparks) has to work with, I think that on a great week we're 10th and we should be 19th-21st on our average day, like a Vegas when we felt like we missed a little bit and still executed the day."
One major change at Spire is that Ryan Sparks, LaJoie's crew chief since 2019 at Go FAS Racing, has had Director of Competition duties added to his responsibilities. That kind of promotion speaks well to Sparks' organization and leadership abilities, but it's also much to ask to have him take on those duties while still serving as a crew chief. Many larger teams use ex-crew chiefs or other organizational figures to focus on that dedicated role.
"He's doing a pretty good job balancing that, but that just goes back to a small team issue," LaJoie said. "You have to pick and choose what you spend your time and energy on away from making the racecar go fast just to keep everything in order. But when he's plugged in being a crew chief he's damn good at it, and when he's plugged in to be a competition director he's really good at that in terms of processes in the shop. It's hard asking him to do both, but he's done a good job with all of that so far."
If there is anywhere that has illustrated what LaJoie and his team are capable of at their best, it just so happens to be the next stop on the Cup Series schedule.
Last March at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Corey LaJoie earned his best-ever Cup Series finish with a fifth-place run. When he returned in July, LaJoie led 19 laps, led on the final restart with three laps to go, and was in second at the white flag setting up to make his move for the win in Turn 1.
RETWEET to congratulate @chaseelliott!— NASCAR on NBC (@NASCARonNBC) July 10, 2022
The Georgia boy joins his dad @BillElliott9 as a WINNER at @amsupdates! #NASCAR pic.twitter.com/2JfwjjiDBy
Ever since that race -- and the block on the final lap that put LaJoie in the wall and broke his glass slipper -- his return to Atlanta has been greatly anticipated. And for his part, LaJoie believes that his team has gotten a handle on the new reprofiled Atlanta, which races like a superspeedway but sees handling play a factor just as it would on a typical mile and a half racetrack.
But just as LaJoie's team has had nine months to prepare to try and finish the job, so too has the rest of the field had the opportunity to figure out how to be as fast as LaJoie was last July. Which doesn't guarantee LaJoie anything, let alone the chance to really signal Spire's growth with a win and a spot on the NASCAR playoff grid.
"You've got 30-32 guys every week that are capable of finding the same place in that spot that I was last year," LaJoie said. "And you have to put the work in and prepare to execute when you need to and get track position towards the end of the race, and hit the last pit stop right to find yourself in the first couple rows so you have a shot at it."