HOW EXCITED ARE YOU FOR THIS SEASON?
“If the word today is excited, I’m trying not to use excited because everyone is excited when you get to Daytona, and everybody thinks they’re going to win all 36 races. But last week was a pretty good reminder of where we stack up as a race team. I think we didn’t get beat by anybody that we weren’t supposed to get beat by out in LA, but granted we didn’t beat anybody that we shouldn’t have, so left there frustrated. Not as bitter of a pill to swallow this year than last because I think I had unrealistic expectations last year and after you go through the year and see what your strengths are and your weaknesses as a team, you kind of understand the limitations. It sucked to go out there and miss the show and I think the struggle areas will be similar struggle areas this year – short track stuff. I think we’re going to get a little more help on some intermediate body scans, stuff from GM that has been helping with simulator times, so I think you’re going to see us be in play at the speedways and run well. I want to be a team that doesn’t have any DNFs and to be just a solid team. We had nine DNFs last year – nine mechanical DNFs and then three driver DNFs – so if we can clean those up I think we should be substantially better.”
HOW ARE YOU LOOKING AT FONTANA, WHICH THE PLAN IS FOR A HALF-MILE OVAL NEXT YEAR?
“I think that what the drivers like a lot of times isn’t what the fans show up in droves to see. Fontana is a really fun racetrack. It has a lot of character with the ability to run five lanes, the ability to run on the fence, to use some tire conservation. But, then again, it also plays into a stretched-out race with not a ton of passes, not a lot of cars close together which for the viewers on TV they don’t necessarily love that. I can take it or leave it one way or the other. If they have a plan that makes sense, that’s what they’re going to do. If it’s a half mile, I hope that they take some considerations from the drivers about what the configuration should look like. Hopefully, they can lean into the drivers advisory council a little bit and get our input on what a track layout would look like and be the best racing. A lot of challenges but I think they’re going to figure it out, whether it’s a 2-mile oval or a reconfigured short track.”
WHAT DO YOU ATTRIBUTE YOUR SUCCESS TO AT SUPERSPEEDWAY RACING? IS IT RACE STRATEGY, THE DRAFT?
“That’s the equalizer a bit. You can use some common sense and some brains to find yourself there at the end and it’s like chess with 3,600-pound chunks of metal. You don’t have to have the fastest car. I don’t think I’ve qualified better than 33rd here at the 500 ever in my seven years here. So we’re looking to do better than that. It doesn’t make you feel good when you roll out here and you floor it for a minute and realize that’s where you stack up. I do like speedways because it doesn’t matter how slow your car is. You can find the right ways and position yourself.”
YOUR FATHER WON HERE IN AN EXFINITY SERIES RACE. DO YOU REMEMEBR ANYTHING ABOUT THAT RACE?
“I do. I was thinking about that this morning. I remember watching from the grandstands with my aunts and uncles and cousins, and I remember being by the frontstretch-like fence waiting for them to open the gates so we could run to Victory Lane. I remember getting carried across the grass by mu aunt. And what’s really cool is ever since my dad starting racing down here we always get a beach house and we’d have 12, 15 people at a beach house like a family reunion every year. And we’ve continued that tradition. We’ve got a house that we’ll pack all the kiddos in and have a good time. So we kind of make it a LaJoie family reunion every February.”
WHAT WOULD IT MEAN TO YOU TO GET A WIN IN THE TRUCK RACE FRIDAY NIGHT?
“This is the first time realistically in my national series career that I’ve showed up with a truck or car that’s capable of having race-winning speed. And now I have a ton of experience, I’m super confident on the speedways to do the right moves and there’s no other outcome for me to consider a good day than to hold the trophy.”
ARE YOU CONSIDERING ANY OTHER TRUCK RACES?
“I’ll give you some breaking news. I think we’re doing Darlington as well. I’d love to do more. Friday first as the appetizer and Sunday afternoon for the 500.”
YOU’VE SAID YOU’D LIKE TO SEE MORE SHORT TRACKS. WHAT WOULD YOU LIKE TO SEE OUT OF THE FONTANA CONVERSION?
“It’s fun as a driver and it’s a challenge, probably one of the more challenging places we go to. But then if you watch from the 20th row of the grandstands, you see a football field between the top 30 cars. I don’t think that it’s super exciting to watch necessarily, but we went there last year and it was a pretty good show. But NASCAR has to adapt and change with the changing landscape of just the economy; that land up there is super valuable so they can pay for a reconfiguration and make money on the back end of it in addition to that, then that’s what they’re going to do.”
HAVING MORE SHORT TRACKS ON THE SCHEDULE IS GOOD FAIR TO SAY?
“That’s what all this is built on. You have the two-and-a-half-mile track in the sand down here, but beyond that the Wilkesboros and the Martinsvilles, the Bristols – those are the ones that people are packing out. Those are the ones people are showing up at. For another cookie cutter mile and a half, granted we put on some great shows because this Next Gen car was tailored to that style of racetrack. I think there is some work to do. You’ll see some low downforce packages, some less strakes on the underbodies to take some downforce away, which seems like the drivers like. And I think also NASCAR is onboard with idea of potentially giving up some more horsepower, so the door isn’t locked there. Obviously, it’s a lot of hoops for the engine manufacturers to increase power by 100. The tire patch I think is what I think takes away what feels like horsepower.”
YOUR NAME WAS TOP OF THE LIST OF DRIVERS TO WIN THE DAYTONA 500 THAT’S NOT AN OBVIOUS FAVORITE. WHAT DO YOU ATTRIBUTE THAT TO?
“It makes me feel good. We have been solid at the speedways. The reins aren’t fully pulled off of me when it comes to the 500 specifically because being a smaller team we have to come out here with a good financial date, so the intention of coming here with a win is different from the intention of running eighth and collecting a paycheck. We’ll see how the race ebbs and flows. It’s a priority for our team to have a good points day and a good financial day, which doesn’t coincide with winning the race necessarily.”
WITH THE NEXT GEN AND YOU’RE COMPETING FOR THE WIN LIKE YOU WERE AT ATLANTA, HOW MUCH DOES THE DRIVER MAKE ON SUPERSPEEDWAYS?
“A lot of it is fortune and a lot is position, but even so there’s not coincidence you see the same guys up front. We’ve kind of adjusted our strategy to waiting and waiting for a wreck because you just know it’s not a matter of when. I think the drivers are getting better, the guys are getting smarter, the spotters on the roof are getting smarter on what lanes to covet and where the energy is coming from. This package might not be the best for three-wide racing, and it might be too draggy to get a third lane going, so I think as you see guys study it more it’s not coincidence and just luck of somebody who finds their way to the front. I do feel like I can feel the energy of the runs and feel like I can make the right decisions. Also, with years of riding in the back and waiting for crashes – vulture racing is what I call it – if 25 cars wreck you take ninth. I would be watching guys because you can see who’s going where. I’ve been studying this thing in the seat for six years now. And that’s also why when the reins are pulled off I was up toward the front because I’ve been watching what the good guys have been doing and I started trying a little bit of it myself. Once the reins are pulled off completely, I’m excited to see what happen.”
WHAT POINT IN THE SEASON WILL YOU NARROW WHO HAS WHAT – WHO HAS WORK TO DO, WHO’S GOOD?
“Can you? I think any given guy that drives for a top 22, 24 team can find themselves with track position and go out toward the end and find a way to win the race. I don’t think you’ll see a nine- or 10-win season unless somebody hits on something because I think driver strengths are starting to show up more than the car dominance. You see guys who are strong at mile and a halfs, you see guys who are strong at short tracks be at the front more, guys who are good at dirt tracks. I don’t think that you can just point to one guy and say he’s going to be the strongest for 36 weeks. There’s going to be guys who kind of ebb and flow and guys who find their way to the front at the places – road course races or whatever it is – that their strengths are at and their weaknesses are going to be exposed more just because the gains right now are so incremental.”