Sunday, June 5, 2022

CUP: Engine problems make Corey LaJoie first Cup driver to finish last at Gateway

PHOTO: @SpireMotorsport

Corey LaJoie picked up the 10th last-place finish of his NASCAR Cup Series career in Sunday’s inaugural Enjoy Illinois 300 at the World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway when his #7 Chevrolet lost the engine after 72 of 245 laps.

The finish, which came in LaJoie’s 179th series start, was his second of the year and first since Phoenix, 11 races ago. In the Cup Series’ last-place rankings, it was the 44th for the #7, the 710th from engine woes, and the 826th for Chevrolet. Across NASCAR’s top three series, it was the 52nd for the #7, the 1,121st from engine issues, and the 1,843rd for Chevrolet.

With 21 races remaining, LaJoie is now tied with B.J. McLeod for the lead in the 2022 LASTCAR Cup Series Championship. McLeod currently holds the tiebreaker on bottom-fifteen finishes by a margin of 11-8.

In the race immediately following his last feature on this site, LaJoie stormed to an impressive 5th-place finish at Atlanta – a new career-best that improved his previous mark of 6th at Daytona on July 7, 2019. But both he and the Spire Motorsports team have still struggled to find consistency. Three consecutive finishes of 31st or worse were followed by three inside the Top 20, then two accidents at Darlington and Charlotte that doubled his DNF total to four, leaving him 31st in the standings.

Next on the schedule was last Sunday’s first Cup race at Gateway, a track where he’d never previously competed. His father, two-time NASCAR Busch Series Champion Randy LaJoie, made eight starts at the track with a best finish of 2nd in 1999, when his Phoenix Racing entry was just edged out by Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Randy also made a single Truck Series start at the track, finishing 8th for James Harris in 2004.

Saturday at Gateway, LaJoie ranked 30th in practice of the 36 Chartered entries who made up the entire entry list, then improved significantly in qualifying to secure 19th on the grid with a lap of 136.376mph (32.997 seconds).

Taking the 36th and final starting spot was Parker Kligerman, who had a scary incident in practice where his #15 Scott Credit Union Ford caught fire, forcing the driver to bail out on the apron. During qualifying, the Rick Ware Racing team prepared their backup, ultimately putting decals on a flat black Ford. Across the garage, more significant repairs were taking place at Kaulig Racing. Just two laps into practice, the #16 Gold Fish Casino Slots Chevrolet broke loose and smacked the wall in Turns 3 and 4. The driver was defending Truck Series champion Ben Rhodes, who was filling in for A.J. Allmendinger as he prepared his XFINITY car in Portland. The Kaulig crew elected not to go to a backup, and after winning Saturday’s race, Allmendinger incurred a tail-end penalty for unapproved adjustments on his rebuilt Chevrolet. Neither Allmendinger nor Kligerman turned a lap in qualifying. Also sent to the rear was 23rd-place starter Daniel Suarez, who called for a transaxle change on his #99 Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge Chevrolet.

When the race started, one more driver fell to the back behind the docked cars of Suarez, Kligerman, and Allmendinger. This was B.J. McLeod, whose #78 Blaster Ford timed in 34th, slowest of those to complete a qualifying lap. When the race started, McLeod gradually lost touch with 35th-place Kligerman. The gap grew from four-tenths on Lap 2 to 0.835 on Lap 5, and 1.600 on Lap 10. Up to this point, McLeod was quiet on the radio, then said simply he was “tight center-off.” Further up, 34th-place Josh Bilicki, LaJoie’s teammate this week in the #77 Zeigler Auto Group Chevrolet, was losing touch with Kligerman’s teammate Cody Ware in the #51 Nurtec ODT Ford. By Lap 19, Bilicki had fallen 5.525 seconds back of Ware, and by the 22nd circuit, Kligerman had dropped Bilicki back to 35th. McLeod was still running last, 2.192 seconds back of the #77. It wasn’t until Lap 24 that race leader Chase Briscoe put McLeod the first car one lap down.

Four laps later, Briscoe himself would join the last-place battle when he lost a left-rear tire off Turn 4, causing him to slow down the backstretch. He came down pit road under green and took last from McLeod on Lap 30, falling nearly two laps down in the process. Briscoe remained in last when Stage 1 ended on Lap 45, but remained positive, saying to his team, “If we can get it driving good, we can still win.” During the ensuing round of pit stops, Bilicki took last from Briscoe on Lap 49, the crew taking two rounds out in the process. 

Back under green, Bilicki dropped Kligerman to last on Lap 53, then Kligerman dropped McLeod back to 36th the next time by. Though he’d fallen back to the tail end, McLeod sounded better about his car, saying it’s “definitely better – just need a little more.” Things changed again on Lap 65, when the race for 6th place came to blows between Ross Chastain and Denny Hamlin. Contact from Chastain’s #1 Moose Fraternity Chevrolet bumped Hamlin’s #11 FedEx Freight Toyota into the outside wall, which Hamlin hit with the right-rear. Hamlin’s car hobbled to pit road with a busted toe link, which the crew managed to repair under the ensuing caution. But Hamlin still took last on Lap 66, and by Lap 70 looked to clear minimum speed. This was done on Lap 72, at which point Hamlin set his sights on blocking Chastain as he drove past.

As the drama between Hamlin and Chastain intensified with a series of close calls, Corey LaJoie pulled onto pit road with engine trouble. By Lap 75, he was three laps down, and he took last from Hamlin three circuits later. On Lap 85, the crew radioed, “10-4, we're done guys. Sorry about that. Two sets of tires to the 77.” As LaJoie’s crew sent their remaining tires to Bilicki’s pit, NASCAR confirmed LaJoie was out on Lap 93.

Hamlin finished the race under power in 34th, passing only Cody Ware, who dropped out with power steering issues. Ahead of Hamlin in 33rd came the day’s only other DNF – Kevin Harvick – who suffered a right-front brake failure heading into Turn 3 and slapped the wall hard with the passenger side. Rounding out the group was Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., whose #47 SunnyD Chevrolet was involved in at least two on-track incidents.

The unpredictable Gateway track yielded some surprising performances at the front of the field. Michael McDowell ran his same left-side tires for much of the early stages, and led for 34 laps – the most he’d ever led in any one of his 408 Cup Series starts. He ultimately crossed the line in 18th, one spot behind an equally surprising Zane Smith. The Truck Series standout was tabbed to drive in place of Chris Buescher due to COVID-19 protocol, and worked his way from 32nd on the grid to finish 17th in the #17 Acronis Ford – a race where 31 drivers were still on the lead lap at the checkered flag. Also impressive was Portland winner A.J. Allmendinger, who wheeled his rebuilt #16 to a 10th-place finish – his first top-ten finish in a Cup points race since his win last summer on the Indianapolis Grand Prix Circuit.

36) #7-Corey LaJoie / 72 laps / engine
35) #51-Cody Ware / 166 laps / power steering
34) #11-Denny Hamlin / 234 laps / running
33) #4-Kevin Harvick / 235 laps / crash
32) #47-Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. / 241 laps / running

1st) Live Fast Motorsports, Spire Motorsports (3)
2nd) Trackhouse Racing (2)
3rd) Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing, Kaulig Racing, NY Racing Team, Penske Racing, Richard Childress Racing, Rick Ware Racing (1)

1st) Chevrolet (9)
2nd) Ford (5)
3rd) Toyota (1)


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