DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Corey LaJoie notched a ninth-place finish in the Daytona 500 in his debut race with Spire Motorsports — not a victory, yet still celebrated as a milestone by his new team.
NASCAR's biggest race of the season is a showcase for the superstars. They pull into the speedway to start the year with shiny new cars splashed with sponsor logos, everyone full of swagger after a winter spent prepping for the Daytona 500.
Most of the attention goes to the elite teams — and the winner, of course — while the smaller programs toil in anonymity at the back of the NASCAR garage. There is occasionally a surprise winner, as there was this year when Michael McDowell overcame 100-1 odds to score the victory for Front Row Motorsports, but nobody really notices the backmarkers, field fillers or start-and-park teams.
But it is an accomplishment when Spire puts both its cars in the top 10, or Kaulig Racing makes its Daytona 500 debut as the Xfinity Series team begins its transition to the top Cup Series. Same goes for Ryan Preece, who pulled out a sixth-place finish as he races for his NASCAR career because JTG-Daugherty no longer has a charter for his car.
It was Spire, though, that stood up for the little guys.
Jamie McMurray and LaJoie finished eighth and ninth and logged the two fastest laps of the 500-mile race — performances lauded by Spire co-owner Jeff Dickerson in a statement that thanked team partners and also underscored the plight of the underdogs.
“I understand it might be odd, as we didn't exactly win the race, but a public thank you is in order for the countless people that made Daytona a success for our race team,” Dickerson wrote. “We are not a new team but sometimes, this winter, it felt like it with all the changes we made to be ready to put our best foot forward for 2021.”
Spire stumbled into team ownership when Barney Visser shuttered championship-winning Furniture Row Motorsports and persuaded Dickerson and partner T.J. Puchyr, a pair of industry dealmakers, to buy his charter for the 2019 season. The first year Spire simply tried to make its money back to cover the loan on the charter, and even though the team wasn't competitive, Spire lucked into a victory during the rain-stopped July race at Daytona.
The target has always been NASCAR's release of the Next Gen car, which has been touted as a game-changer because it is less expensive and will therefore level the playing field between the haves and have nots. The car was delayed until 2022 because of the pandemic, and Spire used last year to bolster its positioning for when the Next Gen finally arrives.
Spire bought two more charters and overhauled its entire operation. The team bought its own race shop, hired its own people and spent on new equipment. LaJoie was hired as the full-time driver for the No. 7 Chevrolet and brought crew chief Ryan Sparks along.
At Daytona, LaJoie and McMurray both drove cars built by Chip Ganassi Racing and powered by Hendrick Motorsports. LaJoie will have that combination all season; Spire's second No. 77 entry will be Hendrick cars and Hendrick engines with a variety of drivers.
It's the best equipment LaJoie has driven in five NASCAR seasons.
“We have some up-to-date, current cars and our motor package is on the same platform as some of the other guys," LaJoie said. “I’m looking forward to driving a car that was built in this decade to see what we can do.”
Dickerson always said Spire was biding its time until the Next Gen's arrival. But while they wait, Spire is committed to becoming a competitive race team. Justin Haley, winner of the 2019 race at Daytona for Spire, will drive the No. 77 this Sunday on Daytona's road course as the team grooms him for an eventual full-time Cup Series ride.
Spire doesn't want to hire ride-buyers, nor does it want to embarrass itself on the track.
“We are going to take a step forward this year, everyone saw that at Daytona, but it’s not going to translate every week into finishing 15 spots higher,” Dickerson said. "We are positioned for the Next Gen stuff. We are trying to learn how to run a proper race team this year, that’s the goal, regardless of what happened Sunday. All these things are ahead of schedule for us.
“We might run 28th, but we aren’t going to be 28th and seven laps down. We’re going to be in the race.”
LaJoie doesn't think Spire can win a race this year. But he does believe he can be competitive at superspeedways and short tracks, and with a three-year contract from Spire, he's a pivotal part of the long-term plan.
“The people and the tools that are in place continue to build toward (wins) and obviously Spire is really hedging their bets toward this Next Gen car,” LaJoie said. "The goal is always to go to the race track and run the best way possible. But to try to win this year wasn’t necessarily the goal because still, the bottom of the well is infinite with the way the cars are now.
“The Next Gen car with a single source manufacturer, if we can get a couple more partners in the fold where we can have a comfortable racing budget... I really do think that we can compete for some races.”
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