Friday Feature: Independents' Day
“See, sometimes when the little guy, he doesn't know he's a little guy, he can do great big things.” – Jeff Bridges as Charles Howard, “Seabiscuit,” 2003. And so it seems to go for Corey LaJoie, the little guy who just keeps plugging along, defying all the odds and putting himself in contention for a NASCAR K&N Pro Series East championship.
LaJoie – son of two-time NASCAR Nationwide Series champion Randy LaJoie – has won two of the last three races on the schedule to pull within one point of the series lead after seven of 14 races on the schedule. It may have taken LaJoie 24 races to find his way to Victory Lane for the first time, but he's certainly figured out how to stay there.
“We've been a Top-3 car every week, really,” LaJoie said. “If it hadn't been for two races (with bad luck), we'd be leading the points and probably setting sail. We've been fortunate to have hit on something with our setup – and it's the same setup, pretty much everywhere we go. Right now, it's working for us.”
|COREY LAJOIE: DRIVER PAGE | TWITTER | FACEBOK FAN PAGE | #NEXT9 | BOWMAN GRAY WIN | LANGLEY WIN|
|EDDIE MACDONALD: DRIVER PAGE | FACEBOOK FAN PAGE|
|BRANDON GDOVIC: DRIVER PAGE | TWITTER | FACEBOOK FAN PAGE|
If it weren't for a flat tire while leading in the season opener at Bristol Motor Speedway or a balky alternator at Iowa Speedway, LaJoie is right – he'd easily have the series points lead. He's not finished worse than fourth in any race this season where he hasn't encountered mechanical trouble.
Considering LaJoie is still joined only by a few friends at the shop and at the race track – hauling his No. 07 Sims Metal Management Fords to the race track in a small hauler more befitting a local Late Model and not a NASCAR regional touring series – it's an incredible feat. He's the proud independent team in a garage area that has its share of Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing and Michael Waltrip Racing teams surrounding it.
And LaJoie is leading the charge of teams without direct Sprint Cup Series affiliation this season – one of three teams in the Top-6 in the point standings midway through the season. Brandon Gdovic is fifth; series veteran and New England native Eddie MacDonald is sixth.
See, that little guy, when he doesn't know he's a little guy, he can accomplish great big things.
“There's things we don't have, but there's nothing we don't have that we need,” LaJoie said. “We don't have the nicest, newest, best stuff out there, but we're making the best of what we have. Granted, to have the big hauler with all the parts and the backup car and two or three cars at the shop that are as good as your best piece – yeah, that always helps. But if you've got one car that's eight years old, and you run it because that's what you've got, then you make it run the best you can.
“It makes it tough, but that builds character. I look at it like this, this isn't just a career path for me – sure, I want nothing more than to drive race cars for a living – but it's also about building character and trying to become a better man.”
MacDonald has made 151 career series starts, with six victories over parts of 12 seasons, but his K&N Pro Series East career is defined by his performances at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. He swept the two K&N Pro Series races at the one-mile track back in 2008, just one season after Joey Logano became the first driver to win the K&N Pro Series East championship while driving for a Sprint Cup Series organization.
“We're trying to get back to that,” said MacDonald, whose cars are prepared near his Rowley, Mass., home. “We know it's kind of out of our reach to show up and contend for a win every week, but it would be nice to get to the point where we feel like we can run in the Top-5 every time we go to the track.
“It's gotten a little bit tougher to do that every year. There are more teams coming in, more technology. That Hendrick team (of point leader Chase Elliott) is pretty top of the line. Gibbs, Waltrip, those guys are pretty quick everywhere they show up, so it's definitely getting tougher on everybody.”
MacDonald said it's about more than just Sprint Cup teams raising the bar in the K&N Pro Series. Teams like the four-car Rev Racing organization continue to run well each week, while Andy Santerre – a four-time champion as a driver and former team manager at Rev Racing – has turned the two-car team of Hattori Racing Enterprises into a contender.
One of the innovations that has helped level the playing field for the smaller teams has been the introduction of the spec engine. Matt Kobyluck first used it to win the Toyota All-Star Showdown in 2006, and Logano followed that by winning the 2007 title for JGR with the spec engine.
It's not just the independent teams making use of the engine. This season, Hendrick Motorsports and Chase Elliott are using the cost-effective power plant.
And no one believes that the depth of talent in the series – either behind the wheel or turning the wrenches – is going to let up.
“It never levels off by no means. Everybody keeps trying to get better. If you don't, you're not a racer,” LaJoie said. “Everybody's trying a new part, trying to make their stuff lighter. Obviously, it's good that a bunch of independent teams are running as good as the Cup teams.
“It just shows that it doesn't matter how much money or equipment you have. At the end of the day, it's about whether or not you have all four tires pointed in the right direction.”
Given the resurgence this year of some smaller, independent teams, LaJoie believes the series is actually returning to NASCAR's roots.
“I don't really even think all those multi-car teams matter here,” he said. “It's a lot more crucial in the Nationwide and Cup Series, to have a bunch of teams to bounce information off of. In this deal, though, if you can get close, you can make up a lot in the seat.
“To me, it's kind of like the old Busch Series now – or even the old Busch North Series – where guys just put their cars together in their garage and then went out and raced them. And they did it because they loved it.
“And they were damn good at it, too.”
Sort of like the LaJoies, MacDonalds and Gdovics have been thus far in 2012.
Those little guys can do great big things.
Eddie MacDonald, tied for the series lead for the most top 10s this year, has finishsed in the top seven of the season standings in each of the previous four years. Kevin Lyles/NASCAR