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    Sunday, May 26, 2024

    Corey LaJoie gets long-awaited Hendrick Motorsports shot in NASCAR Cup Series

    Corey LaJoie during driver introductions before the NASCAR Daytona 500 auto race at Daytona International Speedway, Sunday, Feb. 19, 2023, in Daytona Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

    Madison, Ill. — Corey LaJoie is finally getting a chance to drive for Hendrick Motorsports this week.

    He wanted so badly to drive for the team a few years ago, that when it became common knowledge Jimmie Johnson was retiring as a full-time NASCAR Cup Series driver, LaJoie used his best cursive penmanship to write a letter to owner Rick Hendrick asking for the job.

    It didn't work out then — Alex Bowman got the No. 48 car — but it may have laid the groundwork for this week.

    When it appeared that Chase Elliott would be punished for his intentional wreck of Denny Hamlin at Charlotte, the team put LaJoie on standby. And when the one-race suspension was handed down, taking NASCAR's most popular driver out of the No. 9 car for Sunday's race at World Wide Technology Raceway, LaJoie finally got the call he'd long sought.

    "I missed the call," he said, by way of clarification. Turns out he fell asleep early. But at least Hendrick left a message.

    "He was like, 'Hey Corey, it's Rick Hendrick here. Just wanted to thank you for filling in under these circumstances. I appreciate the help and I know you'll do a good job,'" LaJoie said Saturday. "I feel like it's a video game. You start your career mode on the bottom team, and you get called up to the next team and the next team, and then you get the call-up from Mr. Hendrick.

    "That's how I felt," LaJoie said. "I was laying in bed and I told my wife, 'My life is like a video game right now.'"

    Elliott, who popped into the St. Louis area for some fan events this week, denied deliberately hooking the rear of Hamlin's car during the rain-rescheduled Charlotte race on Monday. Hamlin countered by posting a stream of data on social media backing up his claims, then pointed out that Bubba Wallace — who drives the car Hamlin owns with 23XI Racing — was suspended last year for deliberately hooking Kyle Larson during a race in Las Vegas.

    "You never want to see Chase out of a car by any means," Bowman said, "but I understand why NASCAR has got to be consistent with things, and then also excited to see how Corey does. It's a big opportunity for him."

    LoJoie was hired by Spire Motorsports — which will have Carson Hocevar in its No. 7 on Sunday — when he didn't get the No. 48 ride a couple of years ago. The team has steadily improved thanks in part to a working relationship with Hendrick Motorsports, and LaJoie was fourth earlier this year in Phoenix and has two other top-15 runs.

    He knows expectations are greater with Hendrick, though, where his father Randy made nine starts some 25 years ago.

    That was evident in a talk he had with Spire owner Jeff Dickerson.

    "Jeff called and was like, 'Hey, it's happening,'" LaJoie said. "There was a lot of self-doubt that crept in that night, like, 'Can you do it?' Put up or shut up.' You're wrestling around, wrestling these emotions of like, scared and nervous. And Wednesday morning you wake up, you walk into the shop and the first five minutes, you notice like, the collective focus of that group. Their goal is to win races and championships. You walk through the lobby, you know why they are so successful.

    "I texted Dickerson and said, 'I can't believe Spire and Hendrick race in the same series. We're closer to a good truck team,'" LaJoie added. "It's definitely a cool opportunity to this week be one of the goliaths sitting in one."

    Hamlin reacts

    Hamlin said he's been in contact with Elliott this week but wanted to keep the conversation private. But like most drivers at the speedway Saturday, he believed that NASCAR made an appropriate decision to sideline Elliott this week.

    "I think they kind of put their line in the sand of what they deem acceptable and what they don't," said Hamlin, who was still a bit sore from the head-on wreck. "All drivers probably recognize now, you know, what you can do and what you can't do."

    More penalties

    Stewart-Haas Racing was penalized 120 points in owner standings and Chase Briscoe's driver standings while getting stripped of 25 playoff points after NASCAR found a counterfeit part on the No. 14 car during a spot check from Charlotte. Crew chief John Klausmeier also was suspended six races and fined $250,000.

    The penalties, the harshest NASCAR imposes under its deterrence system, came after the team had used an illegal part to create more downforce on Briscoe's car. That particular part must be from a single-source vendor for the Next Gen car.

    "We're all a team, right? I mean, my name is on the penalty but we're all a team," Briscoe said. "I make mistakes every single weekend in the car, literally multiple times. So you know, mistakes happen. I mean, I got their back."

    Odds and ends

    Kyle Larson is the 9/2 favorite to win, according to FanDuel Sportsbook, after a busy week in the St. Louis area. He won a sprint car race in his High Limit series Wednesday at Tri-Cities Speedway before crashing out of a World of Outlaws late model race on Friday night. ... William Byron is the second betting favorite at 13/2 and Charlotte winner Ryan Blaney is the 17/2 third choice.

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