For the Dale Earnhardt Jr. fans looking for someone to root for after the two-time Daytona 500 champion calls it a career, another hard-working Kannapolis, North Carolina boy is waiting in the wings.
Corey LaJoie, rookie driver of the No. 83 BK Racing Toyota in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, is working his way up the NASCAR ranks. But there’s a difference between the way he’s doing it and the path other drivers have taken.
In an exclusive interview with FOXSports.com, LaJoie talked about a variety of topics, including Earnhardt’s retirement, racing with a famous name in NASCAR and how he’s breaking into the sport.
On Dale Jr.’s retirement
Just like everyone else, LaJoie is sad to see Earnhardt retire.
"It sucks because who doesn't love Dale Jr.?" LaJoie said. "Ninety-five percent of the fans love Dale Jr., as well. It’s going to be a big void. I’m sure NASCAR can figure out how to fill it."
But LaJoie wants fans to know they have another Kannapolis native to follow every Sunday.
"Hopefully some of those fans disperse to some different guys," LaJoie added. "Hopefully I’m one of them. They can still root for another guy from Kannapolis, North Carolina. His last name just won’t be Earnhardt, it’ll be LaJoie. I can be one of those guys they can get behind and grow with me on my journey to eventually get into a race-winning car and win some races."
Although LaJoie hates to see such a great competitor hang up his helmet, he knows Earnhardt will be just as much of an influence outside the car.
"We didn’t lose him," LaJoie said. "He’s still going to be around. He’s going to be running some XFINITY races with his team. We haven’t lost him by no means. But on the competition side (in the Cup Series), it’ll definitely be a dent losing Dale."
LaJoie is the son of two-time NASCAR XFINITY Series champion Randy LaJoie. Although LaJoie hasn’t faced the same amount of pressure Earnhardt has racing with a legendary name, the rookie driver still understands the challenges it brings.
“It’s not as easy as everybody thinks," LaJoie said. "Everybody thinks my dad just paid my way up there. That was far from the case. Sometimes it actually almost hurt just because people thought I came with money, which was never the case. I’ve had a lot of resources from dad’s friends and people I’ve made contacts with to help me get there. I’ve done it the old-fashioned way."
Working for it
LaJoie hasn’t had everything handed to him. He’s paved his own way by getting his hands dirty and working for everything he’s earned.
“I’ve worked on all my stuff,” LaJoie said. “I’ve built race cars and done all that stuff, and there’s not many kids that are racing nowadays that do that. They think it’s other peoples’ jobs to work on their cars and they just show up and drive them. That’s what the old-school fan likes. Hopefully I can get my story out there and tell people I’ve worked to get here.”
That includes working in his father’s business, The Joie of Seating, which builds high performance aluminum seats for drivers.
“I’ll go to dad’s shop, help weld seats, test on seats and fabricate for him,” he said. “I have to work on Monday just like everybody else does, even though I’m driving on Sunday. Maybe people can relate to that and people can start following my journey, as well.”
LaJoie knows Earnhardt will make himself available for the younger generation of the sport, just like he has before and continues to do.
“I’ll chop it up with him (Earnhardt) in passing sometimes, but I’ve never really had a sit-down meeting with him,” LaJoie said. I’d love to, man. He’s been my favorite guy since I was a little guy. I’m sure Dale’s influence is going to be far beyond his driving. He was a hell of a driver, but he’s also going to be great for the sport outside of the driver’s seat, as well.”
Just like many other young drivers in the sport, LaJoie looks to the veterans for guidance. That includes guys like Earnhardt and seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson.
"I’ve got a couple different people I can go to, whether it would be Jimmie (Johnson), or Joey Logano, or (Kyle) Larson. Larson and I grew up racing together and now he’s killing it. Hopefully we’ll get to the point where we can race against each other wheel-to-wheel one day.”