Corey LaJoie had victory in his sights. He was in position on the last lap at Atlanta Motor Speedway, in second place in a pack race that makes it easy to get a run and draft past the leader.
The problem? A NASCAR Cup Series champion, Chase Elliott, was in first, seeking his first career victory at his hometown track. He wasn’t going to give it up easy.
LaJoie found out the hard way.
By blocking the high line, Elliott forced LaJoie up the track and the No. 7 Chevrolet simply lost control. With that, a potential sixth first-time winner in 2022 instead saw his glass slipper get smashed to pieces in a matter of seconds.
“I made my move, and it didn’t work out,” LaJoie said. “He made a good block, and the siren’s ringing in Dawsonville [Elliott’s hometown], unfortunately.”
That wreck ended another crazy race up front at AMS. Changing this track to a pack racing format created a total of 73 lead changes in this season’s two events, the most for two back-to-back AMS Cup races since 1982.
With 13 caution flags scrambling the running order, Elliott managed to stay out front and avoid the carnage. Leading a race-high 96 laps, he wasn’t going to let this opportunity slip — not with the crowd behind him and that Dawsonville Pool Room siren a short 90-minute drive away.
“I’ve witnessed guys win at their home tracks,” Elliott said, “And you can always tell it means a lot to them, but until you start competing somewhere at a sport’s highest stage like this, I’m not sure you fully understand the meaning of it and what it could mean to you.”
The only three-time Cup winner this season, Elliott’s edge in playoff points grew to seven over the rest of the field and would increase substantially with a regular season title.
As for LaJoie? Well, 21st is nowhere close to how the No. 7 challenged up front, 19 laps led almost doubling his career total. That leaves him with mixed feelings on an almost type of day that fell one move short of a major breakthrough.
“It just sucks,” LaJoie said. “But I wouldn’t have changed a thing.”
Green: Big Surprises — Pack races usually bring out the best in mid-pack teams and Atlanta was no different. Erik Jones recovered from hitting the outside wall to post his best finish since February (4th); Harrison Burton (10th) earned his first career top-10 finish with the Wood Brothers. And how about Cole Custer (9th) who matched his best result in nearly two years after struggling mightily in his Cup ride at Stewart-Haas Racing.
Yellow: Martin Truex Jr. — Yes, 27 laps led and an 11th-place finish were impressive for a driver spun out early in this Atlanta event. But Truex remains 0-for-his career in the pack racing format typically used at Daytona and Talladega.
Red: Ricky Stenhouse Jr. — It was a bad time to blow an engine for this pack racing specialist, whose best chance to win is here and the Daytona season finale in August. Stenhouse has a middling 24.4 average finish over the last five races following a career-best four straight top-10 performances in the Cup Series.
Speeding Ticket: Finishing Under Yellow — I understand why NASCAR threw the caution as LaJoie wrecked coming off turn 2. But there’s a touch of inconsistency in how yellow flags get officiated at the finish. Take the 2020 Daytona 500 as an example, where Chase Elliott spun on the white-flag lap and yet the race stayed green until Ryan Newman’s frightening accident. Making this call is purely subjective.
To keep the rules out of it, NASCAR might as well say they finish under green in all circumstances. They can stay conservative in throwing the yellow that late in the race but in cases where they have to? It ensures a finish under green and puts unfair calls of favoritism to rest (Elliott is NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver).
Once again, all eyes were on Ross Chastain after a series of incidents marred his second-place Atlanta finish. First, there was contact with Truex that led to the biggest wreck of the day on lap 92.
It looked like a racing deal, a bump draft gone wrong — which is typical at these types of pack races. But try telling that to drivers like Austin Dillon, whose No. 3 car was torn to pieces.
“It’s the fact he’s in that same area and part of the wreck,” Dillon said when pressed why Chastain was blamed.
It only got worse for Chastain once he and Denny Hamlin made contact for the second time in a month. The issue came with Chastain battling a damaged nose from the earlier wreck, sending the No. 11 around and causing more off-track frustration.
Chastain claimed after the race he would call Denny and was “working toward a better relationship.” But are drivers willing to listen at this point?
“Everyone has their different tolerance levels…” Hamlin said after the race. “I’ve reached my peak.”