Thursday, May 12, 2016

5/31/98: Randy LaJoie’s first last-place finish comes after hard Dover crash

SOURCE: The Nashville Nework (TNN)
On May 31, 1998, Randy LaJoie picked up the 1st last-place finish of his NASCAR Winston Cup career in the MBNA Platinum 400 at the Dover Downs International Speedway when his #50 Budweiser Chevrolet crashed after 9 of 400 laps.  The finish came in LaJoie’s 35th series start.

At the time of the race, LaJoie had already been racing in NASCAR for more than a decade.  He got his start in the Molson Tour (now the NASCAR North Tour) in 1982, finishing 14th in his debut at the Waterford Speedbowl near his hometown of Norwalk, Connecticut.  Two months later, he made his first start at Dover and finished 4th in just his third series start, trailing Dave Dion, Dick McCabe, and Jean-Paul Cabana.  His first of ten series wins came the next year at the Catamount Stadium in Vermont en route to a 4th-place showing in points.

The next year, LaJoie and his Molson Tour sponsor Snellman Construction decided to take a big gamble: making the field for the Daytona 500.  It didn’t pay off.  Eight laps into the second Twin 125-mile qualifying race, his #07 Chevrolet lost control off Turn 4, caught air, and slammed violently into an embankment.  LaJoie somehow avoided serious injury and went on to finish 2nd in the now re-branded Stroh’s Tour up north.  He returned to Daytona in 1985 and though he again missed the field, he won the nine-car “Consolation Race” among his fellow DNQs, besting Dale Jarrett’s brother Glenn by three seconds.  Though LaJoie wouldn’t make the 500 field for another decade, he did finally make his Cup debut at Atlanta, finishing a strong 14th.

A 1985 championship in the North Series vaulted LaJoie into the Busch Grand National Series (now XFINITY Series) the following year.  Again, he proved to be a quick learner.  He finished 11th in his series debut at Darlington, earned his first top-ten finish the next month at Charlotte, and in 1988 earned his first top-five run with a 3rd behind Dick McCabe and Kelly Moore at Maine’s one third-mile Oxford Plains Speedway.  By 1994, LaJoie was still winless in the Busch Series, but had finished 16th in the standings.  This attracted the attention of car owner Bill Davis, whose driver Bobby Labonte had left the team to replace Dale Jarrett at Joe Gibbs Racing.

By the start of the 1995 season, LaJoie had made 13 Cup starts in one-off and limited-term deals for Bobby Wawak, Jim Rosenblum (who currently fields the #28 FDNY Racing entry in the Truck Series), Cale Yarborough, Dick Moroso, and T.W. Taylor.  None of the rides bested his 14th-place run in his 1985 debut.  Bill Davis, on the other hand, offered LaJoie a full-time ride in the #22 MBNA America Pontiac and a chance to compete for Rookie of the Year against fellow Busch graduates Ricky Craven, Robert Pressley, and others.  LaJoie made his elusive Daytona 500 debut, finishing 29th, and improved his career-best to a 12th at Bristol, but Davis wasn’t satisfied with the results.  After a 41st-place run at Michigan when a broken valve halted his Pontiac after 18 laps, LaJoie was released and was eventually replaced by Ward Burton.  Burton won that fall’s race at Rockingham, beginning a successful nine-year relationship.  LaJoie, meanwhile, made just one more start in Dick Brooks’ #40 Kendall Pontiac before he returned to the Busch Series.

The next two years, LaJoie enjoyed the most successful period of his career.  Driving for BACE Motorsports in the #74 Fina Chevrolet, he claimed five victories in both seasons and claimed back-to-back series titles.  His dominance earned him a spot in the International Race of Champions in 1997, where he won the season finale at Michigan over Robby Gordon and came home third in the standings.  In 1998, he was back in IROC and still running Top 10 in the Busch standings when the opportunity came to make another run in Cup.

Ricky Craven, who defeated LaJoie for Rookie of the Year in 1995, had signed with Hendrick Motorsports in 1997 to drive the #25 Budweiser Chevrolet.  After finishing 3rd behind teammates Jeff Gordon and Terry Labonte in that year’s Daytona 500, Craven looked to be on the rise, but a hard practice crash at Texas put him on the sidelines for two races.  Craven returned to win that year’s Winston Open, but the effects of his concussion at Texas began to come back.  By the early part of 1998, Craven had to step aside after four races.  Hendrick needed an experienced driver to keep the #50, renumbered for NASCAR’s 50th Anniversary, up in the points.  They chose LaJoie.

LaJoie’s first start for Hendrick came that March in the TranSouth Financial 400 at Darlington, where he came home 38th.  The next week at Bristol, he surprised with a strong 10th-place run, another career-best which he improved further with a 5th the next month at Martinsville.  He finished 10th again the next week at Talladega.  Unfortunately, back-to-back crashes at Fontana and Charlotte, the latter involving Dale Earnhardt, left him 36th and 38th.  Dover, likely his home track on the Cup tour, was next.  In his two previous starts for Bobby Wawak in 1988 and Bill Davis in 1995, he’d finished 37th and 23rd.

LaJoie’s Dover car had “Louie The Lizard” on the hood, Budweiser’s mascot spun-off their successful “Budweiser Frogs” campaign.  The car struggled in qualifying, and LaJoie settled for the 40th spot in the 43-car field with a provisional start.  Still, he managed to out-qualify three drivers who missed the show: Dennis Setzer, who drove in place of rookie Jerry Nadeau in Bill Elliott and Dan Marino’s #13 FirstPlus Financial Ford; Morgan Shepherd, who drove in place of Wally Dallenbach, Jr. in Felix Sabates’ #46 FirstUnion Chevrolet; and the #35 Tabasco Pontiac of Todd Bodine, which had already missed half of the 12 Cup races that season.

Bringing up the rear that day was Darrell Waltrip, whose 50th straight Dover start came in his seventh start in relief of the injured Steve Park in Dale Earnhardt, Inc.’s #1 Pennzoil Chevrolet.  Waltrip held 43rd during the entire green-flag run and was still there when trouble broke out on the backstretch.  Johnny Benson, Jr., who started 14th in Jack Roush’s #26 Cheerios Ford, lost control racing John Andretti off Turn 2 and spun backwards.  Benson missed the outside wall, but slid across the track directly into the path of Kyle Petty’s #44 Hot Wheels Pontiac, which had lost control checking-up alongside Robert Pressley’s #77 Jasper Engines Ford.  LaJoie had time to slow down, but the brakes locked-up and he lost control, sliding him down the track and directly into the rear of Benson’s stopped car.  In all, eight drivers were involved.

“Just one of those deals that happens at Dover,” said LaJoie in an interview with Steve Byrnes for TNN, “I guess there was two different wrecks. Johnny Benson spun and somebody got in the back of Kyle (Petty) and got Kyle goin’ for a ride.  I passed a couple cars on the outside, spotter said ‘slow down, slow down,’ I got nailed in the left-rear and got caught up in it.  Hate it - we had a good car in last practice.”

All drivers involved in the wreck were uninjured, but LaJoie, Petty, and Benson were done for the day.  Pressley managed to bring his damaged car back onto the track, but pulled out after completing 120 laps with handling issues.  Completing the Bottom Five was 40th-place Kenny Wallace, who broke something in the right-front of his #81 Square D Ford and slammed hard into the Turn 3 wall.

Dale Jarrett went on to win the race by more than 13 seconds over second-place Jeff Burton, but the big story of the afternoon was Roy “Buckshot” Jones.  Jones, who was making just his second Cup start, had just replaced Hut Stricklin in the Stavola Brothers’ #8 Circuit City Chevrolet.  Jones started 19th and came home a strong 8th, his best finish in 56 Cup starts.

One week after Dover, LaJoie finished 31st at Richmond.  It turned out to be his final start with Hendrick, who replaced him with Wally Dallenbach, Jr.  LaJoie made just eight more Cup starts in his career, running for single-car team owners Mark Simo, Stan Hover, and William Edwards, the last of which fielded his final Cup run at Martinsville in 2005, where he came home 42nd.  All the while, LaJoie’s focus remained with the Busch Series, where he scored another five victories, the last of which coming at Memphis Motorsports Park on October 13, 2001.  His 350th and final Busch Series race came at Texas on November 4, 2006, where he came home 31st driving for Adrian Berryhill.

Following his last start, LaJoie has been involved in several aspects of racing.  His company “The Joie of Seating” makes custom-built seats for race cars.  He’s been a broadcaster for both radio and ESPN’s television coverage.  He’s also focused on the racing career of his son Corey, who himself rose from the K&N Pro Series East to make his Cup debut at New Hampshire on September 21, 2014.

*This was the first time the #50 was classified last in a Cup race since July 22, 1990, during the AC Spark Plug 500 at Pocono.  Rich Vogler, a seven-time USAC champion and five-time Indianapolis 500 starter with a best finish of 8th in 1989, was set to make his Cup debut that day.  “Rapid Rich,” as he was known, had timed in 32nd in the field of 40 driving the #50 Coors Light Chevrolet fielded by Ray DeWitt’s RaDiUs Motorsports.  Tragically, the night before the race, Vogler was killed while leading Jeff Gordon with two laps to go in a USAC race at Salem Speedway in Indiana.  He was 39.  DeWitt’s team withdrew the car on Sunday.
*The #50 had never before finished last in a Cup race at Dover.

43) #50-Randy LaJoie / 9 laps / crash
42) #44-Kyle Petty / 9 laps / crash
41) #26-Johnny Benson, Jr. / 9 laps / crash
40) #81-Kenny Wallace / 32 laps / crash
39) #77-Robert Pressley / 120 laps / handling

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