|PHOTO: Sarah Crabill, Getty Images|
Since his last-place finish at Las Vegas in March, LaJoie has still been looking for his first lead-lap finish and an equally elusive Top 20. While his 24th-place finish at Bristol only tied his season best in the Daytona 500, FOX Sports’ Mike Joy pointed out that he was running 23rd with just 24 laps to go at Kansas when a crash in Turn 2 dropped him to 27th.
Ironically, LaJoie and BK Racing teammate Gray Gaulding weren’t on the preliminary entry list for Saturday’s open race. Nor was Cole Whitt in TriStar Motorsports’ #72 RTIC Coolers Chevrolet. But by Friday, all three were at the track, ready to fill the 24-car field. LaJoie’s #83 carried a new look as it carried logos for Hope For The Warriors, a four-pronged program designed to help military veterans and their families. LaJoie ran 17th in Friday’s lone practice session, then secured 15th on the grid with a lap of 182.420mph.
Starting last in the Open was Michael McDowell in Leavine Family Racing’s #95 WRL General Contractors Chevrolet. Neither McDowell nor 23rd-place starter Reed Sorenson turned a lap in qualifying, placing Sorenson’s #15 Internetwork Engineering Chevrolet next to McDowell. When the field received the signal for one lap to green, however, three more cars fell to the rear behind McDowell: Jeffrey Earnhardt in Circle Sport with The Motorsport Group’s #33 Towne Bank Chevrolet, Derrike Cope in Premium Motorsports’ #55 Ckezipis Law Toyota, and Carl Long in the #66 Waltrip Brothers’ Charity Championship Chevrolet. After his sponsorship struggles last week at Kansas, Long’s sponsorship from the Waltrip family proved particularly timely: at the same Charlotte track in 2000, where Darrell Waltrip failed to make the field for his final Coca-Cola 600, Long let Waltrip race his Thee Dixon-owned #85 Ford.
On the first lap of the race, Long held 24th and last, nearly six seconds behind the leaders, but by Lap 4 had caught and passed the #51 Lily Trucking Chevrolet driven by Cody Ware, Ware’s first Cup race of any kind since Atlanta. As on the previous quad-oval, Ware struggled to keep pace with the pack: he was 14.3 seconds back of the leader on Lap 5, 21.3 behind on Lap 8, and the first to lose a lap on the 13th circuit. At almost the same moment Clint Bowyer put Ware a lap down, Corey LaJoie suddenly pulled behind the wall, and would not return for the rest of the night.
23rd in the Open went to Bowyer, who won the first stage in his #14 Haas Automation Ford and was the first to transfer into the All-Star Race. 22nd went to LaJoie’s teammate Gray Gaulding, whose #23 Bubba Burger Toyota went behind the wall at the end of the first segment on Lap 20, then returned on Lap 33 to run three more laps before parking for the night. 21st went to A.J. Allmendinger, whose fast #47 Kroger ClickList / Tide / Hellmann’s Chevrolet suffered left-rear damage when Austin Dillon broke loose beneath him. The Crash Clock wasn’t necessarily a factor as much as the green-flag stop itself, which took Allmendinger out of contention. Rounding out the Bottom Five was Segment 2 winner Ryan Blaney, who also led his segment from start to finish.
*This marked the first last-place finish in the Open for the #83.
*LaJoie is the 21st different driver to finish last in the Open, a streak extending back to Delma Cowart’s final race in 1997.
THE BOTTOM FIVE
24) #83-Corey LaJoie / 12 laps / vibration
23) #14-Clint Bowyer / 20 laps / won stage 1 / led 20 laps
22) #23-Gray Gaulding / 23 laps / electrical
21) #47-A.J. Allmendinger / 34 laps / crash
20) #21-Ryan Blaney / 40 laps / won stage 2 / led 20 laps