MADISON, Ill. — After eight years and 214 NASCAR Cup Series starts spent chasing his racing dreams, Corey LaJoie missed the biggest phone call of his life.
When the 31-year-old racecar driver awoke Wednesday morning, he found a voice mail on his phone.
While LaJoie didn’t have the number saved, he knew who had left it.
Rick Hendrick, the winningest team owner in NASCAR Cup history.
“I told my wife, I was like – ‘honey, I missed the call,’ ” LaJoie said.
LaJoie listened to the message.
“Hey Corey, it’s Rick Hendrick here,” said LaJoie, relaying Hendrick’s message. “Just wanted to let you know that I’m excited you’re filling in under this circumstance. Appreciate the help and I know you’re going to do us a good job.”
LaJoie called Hendrick back. Luckily, missing the initial call hadn’t derailed the purpose of it.
What was the “circumstance” Hendrick referred to?
NASCAR had just suspended its most popular driver, Chase Elliott, for one race.
In this past Monday’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Elliott intentionally hooked the car of Denny Hamlin into the outside wall on the frontstretch under green flag conditions, a retaliatory action in response to rough driving over the previous lap.
Based on the precedent set last year when NASCAR suspended Bubba Wallace for a similar accident at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Elliott received the one-week benching.
That set the stage for LaJoie getting called in from the bullpen and what has been a “wild week” for the driver.
“It’s weird, man,” LaJoie said Saturday morning. “It’s like the dream is during the day right now.”
LaJoie shared the story of his missed phone call in the media center at World Wide Technology Raceway, the 1.25-mile race track located just across the Mississippi River from St. Louis.
He was a little over 24 hours away from making the most important start of his NASCAR career in the Enjoy Illinois 300 (2:30 p.m. Central on Fox Sports 1).
Sitting behind a podium, LaJoie wore a light blue shirt and dark blue hat bearing the logos of NAPA Auto Parts, a long-time sponsor of Elliott and Hendrick Motorsports.
Normally, LaJoie would be wearing the colors of much smaller sponsors for the much smaller Spire Motorsports.
But there has been nothing normal about this week.
LaJoie went back to when he’d laid in bed with his wife, Kelly, after hanging up with Hendrick.
The moment felt like one he’d experienced in an old NASCAR video game.
“You’d start your career mode in the bottom team and then you’d get the call up to the next team and the next team,” LaJoie said. “Then you’d get a notification on your phone from like Rick Hendrick to drive that car. That’s what I felt like laying in bed on Wednesday morning talking to the wife. I was like – my life is a video game right now. It’s just non-stop progression, failure and just falling short time and time again, but keep taking steps forward towards the goal of getting to the position that I’m in right now.”
LaJoie has a simpler way of describing this: his trademark phrase — and the title of his podcast — “Stacking Pennies.”
Here’s an important thing to know before Sunday’s NASCAR Cup race: LaJoie has never won a race at the national level.
His last NASCAR win of any kind came in a NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour event last year at Martinsville Speedway.
Before that, his last victory was in a NASCAR K&N Pro Series East race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in 2016.
At the national level — Cup, Xfinity and the Craftsman Truck Series — he is 0-for-240.
LaJoie’s Cup career has been one of grinding.
Before Sunday, all of his starts have been with underfunded teams or teams that no longer exist.
He’s only finished in the top 10 six times.
The closest he’s come to a win was last summer at Atlanta Motor Speedway. After leading 19 laps, LaJoie was second at the white flag. His race ended when, ironically, a block from eventual race winner Elliott sent LaJoie’s No. 7 car into the wall.
Despite the struggles and hurdles, LaJoie finally has his shot.
This isn’t the first time LaJoie’s name has been floated for a Hendrick ride.
In 2020, when seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson announced he would retire from full-time racing at the end of the year, LaJoie gave Hendrick a hand written letter attempting to prove his case for consideration as Johnson’s successor.
Instead, the job went to Alex Bowman, a Hendrick driver who’d also spent a large chunk of his career in underfunded equipment with unfortunate episodes [he once found out he’d been fired from a team via Twitter].
“I respect him a lot,” Bowman said. “You respect somebody that grinds that hard. … I think we had vastly different approaches on how we went about it. When I was trying to do the same thing. I wasn’t talking about it every week. I was just trying to do it. Whereas, obviously, he does like an incredible job of selling himself and promoting himself whereas, I felt like I didn’t do that at all.
“So excited to see what he does with opportunity.”
Soon after the news went out about LaJoie earlier this week, he received a text message of congratulations from another Cup driver who got his foot in the door due to unfortunate circumstances: Bubba Wallace.
Wallace got a four-race tryout with Richard Petty Motorsports in 2017 when its full-time driver, Aric Almirola, injured his back in a race.
Wallace is “pumped” for LaJoie’s chance.
“I texted him right away,” Wallace said. “He responded back that he was nervous. And I was like, ‘There’s no need. You don’t need to be nervous.’ … I said some paths are created faster for others than yourself and we often call that BS and what it is, but it’s life and so your time frame is supposed to be played out how it was meant to be played out from day one. So he’s getting a shot and the best opportunity of his life.”
Looking back, LaJoie is glad Hendrick didn’t consider to him to replace Johnson.
“I wouldn’t have been ready for it,” LaJoie said. “I wouldn’t have been ready for the opportunity — my maturation level, my skills behind the wheel. It’s been six years of grind and stacking pennies to feel confident enough to be able to plug into this No. 9 Chevy and run it to its true potential.”
There’s a little bit of family symmetry to LaJoie’s experience this weekend at WWT Raceway.
LaJoie, who will start 30th Sunday, would like that symmetry to only go so far.
Twenty-five years ago LaJoie’s father, two-time NASCAR Xfinity Series champion Randy LaJoie, also got a chance to substitute for a Hendrick Motorsports driver.
For eight races in 1998, the elder LaJoie drove in the place of an injured Ricky Craven. It was his best shot in the Cup Series.
One of those starts, in the Coca-Cola 600, saw Randy involved in a wreck with seven time Cup champion Dale Earnhardt.
This came up during this week’s episode of Corey LaJoie’s podcast.
LaJoie’s co-host said “Hey, at least you’re not going to wreck Dale Sr. in your opportunity with Hendrick Motorsports and you’re not going to be able to wreck Chase Elliott because you’re driving his car.”
LaJoie said Saturday, “I guess if that’s your measuring stick, I think I’m going to be in pretty good shape.”