DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — When Corey LaJoie made the decision to join Spire Motorsports for the full NASCAR Cup Series season, he saw potential in the small team trying to become a contender.
With newer Chip Ganassi Racing chassis and updated Chevrolet engines from Hendrick Motorsports, LaJoie felt the team could show improvement. Sunday night at Daytona Int’l Speedway, some of that improvement was visible.
LaJoie earned a ninth-place finish in the 63rd Daytona 500, part of a pair of top-10 results from the Spire Motorsports stable in The Great American Race. His teammate, Jamie McMurray, finished eighth.
It was one of the feel-good stories of the weekend, alongside journeyman Michael McDowell, who won the Daytona 500 for his first NASCAR Cup Series triumph in 358 starts.
Much like McDowell’s victory, LaJoie feels his Daytona 500 effort is more important than simply being a strong finish for an underdog team.
He believes it is a sign of the possibilities in front of Spire Motorsports as an organization as it seeks to contend with the Hendrick Motorsports, Stewart-Haas Racings and Joe Gibbs Racings of the Cup Series garage.
“It’s a good start for us,” LaJoie said Thursday during a media conference call. “It was a busy week with a bunch of stuff going on down there at Daytona. Add to that a new team, new procedures with (crew chief) Ryan Sparks still leading our unit; and to have two cars down there in the top 10 after it was all said and done with Spire Motorsports means a lot. I think it means a lot to (co-owners) T.J. Puchyr and Jeff Dickerson, too.
“Financially, obviously, the Daytona 500 is a big one. It certainly started us off on the right foot. And I think it builds some momentum,” LaJoie continued. “We have a great starting position this weekend. We’re starting seventh. So, I’ll have at least six people in front of me to slow me down before I get to turn one. I’m certainly not a road course ringer. I have a little work to do on that. But it would be good to learn from the guys in front of me and to see what we can do this weekend.”
Sunday’s double top-10 effort prompted Spire Motorsports co-owner Jeff Dickerson to post a statement on social media that the finish was “like a win” for their organization.
LaJoie didn’t quite go that far in his praise of the team, but admitted he was surprised at the reaction he received from those congratulating him on his Daytona finish.
“I had more people reach out to me about that than I expected, just because people were realizing Jeff’s character and the people and relationships that got his group to where it is as a race team,” LaJoie explained. “Somebody texted me about that this morning and I was like, ‘Man, that’s why Jeff is one of my favorite people.’ I had to re-phrase the text back and say that Jeff was one of my favorite people before I started driving for him.
“The fact that I get to drive for one of the guys I’ve looked up to in the garage for the past couple of years is really neat.”
Can Spire Motorsports be taken seriously as a Cup Series contender? After Sunday, LaJoie admitted that’s more of a possibility than he might have thought going into the year.
“Originally I said, ‘Check back in here in six months and we’ll see if they’re taking us seriously,’ but we’re one weekend into the year and I would say that people should start taking us seriously,” noted LaJoie. “I get that Daytona is Daytona. With certain circumstances you can pop off a fast lap like we did there. But you don’t luck into two top-10 finishes in the (Daytona) 500 just because you’re out there riding around. I’m ready to get to Phoenix and Vegas and some intermediates, just to see where we stack up speed-wise and figure out those groups of four or five cars that we can race consistently and learn how to beat them.
“I’m looking at cars like RCR or JTG; I feel like we can compete with those guys each and every week,” he continued. “Wherever that stacks up in points … we should be somewhere between 19th and 22nd. I feel like that’s where we should be running if we’re getting better each and every week.”
With more 750-horsepower, low-downforce races on the Cup Series schedule, alongside more potent race cars, LaJoie believes he’s in a stronger position than he’s ever been in before to showcase what he can do at the top level of NASCAR racing.
“I think every week is going to be a better opportunity for me to show what I’m capable of behind the wheel, just because we have some up-to-date, current cars; and our motor package is on the same platform as some of the other guys,” he explained. “I want to get through the road course unscathed. A goal of mine is a top-20 (finish) on all the road courses, because I think I only have four or five road courses under my belt in my whole life. I’m trying to mitigate the losses there, but I’m excited to get to Vegas, Homestead, Phoenix and Martinsville; and some other places that I’m familiar with and really see how we stack up … because I think that will be for telling for us.
“With all that we learned last year working with Ryan Sparks, he knows what to look for in these race cars, and we can add it to a lighter car and make some more downforce with some better motors. I think we’re going to be a force to reckon with as we go along here.”
LaJoie’s next outing in the Spire Motorsports No. 7 Chevrolet will be Sunday at the Daytona Int’l Speedway road course. Live coverage of the O’Reilly Auto Parts 253 begins at 3 p.m. ET on FOX, the Motor Racing Network and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio, channel 90.