MADISON, Ill. -- A seed Corey LaJoie planted more than three years ago finally bore fruit.
LaJoie, you'll remember, delivered a hand-written letter to Hendrick Motorsports team owner Rick Hendrick at the NASCAR Hall of Fame induction ceremonies in 2020.
At the time, Hendrick was pondering possible successors to seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson, who was retiring from full-time Cup racing at the end of the season.
The ride went to Alex Bowman, but LaJoie's outside-the-box job application clearly made an impression.
When NASCAR parked Chase Elliott for one race for landing an ill-considered right hook on the No. 11 Toyota of Denny Hamlin in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte, Hendrick turned to LaJoie as Elliott's replacement in Sunday's Enjoy Illinois 300 presented by TicketSmarter at World Wide Technology Raceway (3:30 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
LaJoie has performed creditably in the No. 7 Spire Motorsports Chevrolet this year and enters Sunday's race 19th in the Cup Series driver standings, but this is his first chance to race in elite equipment in NASCAR's top division.
"The last 24 hours have been surreal," LaJoie said Wednesday. "Despite the circumstances, I'm very appreciative of Mr. Hendrick for the opportunity to fill in for a championship team and driver. I also can't thank my Spire Motorsports family for working with Hendrick Motorsports to make it come to fruition.
"The level of preparation and expectations to succeed are everything I expected them to be. I was able to spend time with (crew chief) Alan (Gustafson) and the No. 9 guys at the shop, and the pursuit of perfection is evident the second you walk through the door. I'm ready to climb through the window and get to work."
With LaJoie driving the No. 9 Camaro, full-time NASCAR CRAFTSMAN Truck Series driver Carson Hocevar will make his Cup Series debut in the Spire Motorsports ride. Driving for Spire, Hocevar finished eighth in Monday's rain-delayed Alsco Uniforms 300 NASCAR Xfinity Series race at Charlotte.
Joey Logano won last year's inaugural Cup event at World Wide Technology Raceway on the way to his second championship. Brad Keselowski will make his 500th start in the series in Sunday's race.
NASCAR Xfinity Series heads west for road-course race at Portland
Last year, AJ Allmendinger won the inaugural NASCAR Xfinity Series race at Portland International Raceway in a deluge.
This year, the forecast calls for clear skies and warmer temperatures for Saturday's Pacific Office Automation 147 at the 1.967-mile road course (4:30 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
There's another major difference in this year's event. Now racing full-time in the NASCAR Cup Series, Allmendinger won't be around to defend his win.
That's good news for Myatt Snider, Austin Hill, Josh Berry and Justin Allgaier, who finished second through fifth, respectively, in the series' debut race at the demanding 12-turn course.
"Portland is definitely a unique and challenging road course," said Allgaier, who picked up his first victory of the season in Monday's rain-delayed Alsco Uniforms 300 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. "We were able to come away with a top-five finish last year, and hopefully we can replicate that same success again this weekend with our BRANDT Professional Agriculture Chevrolet.
"We have a lot of momentum on our side right now, especially after getting the win in Charlotte, and I know that (crew chief) Jim (Pohlman) and the guys on this No. 7 team are ready to get after it again and race for the win on Saturday."
Zane Smith looks for turnaround after recent disappointments
In the first eight races of 2023, reigning NASCAR CRAFTSMAN Truck Series champion Zane Smith scored two victories and three other podium finishes.
After his third-place run at Kansas, however, the season soured. In his last three starts, Smith has finished 22nd (Darlington), 32nd (North Wilkesboro) and 23rd (Charlotte).
Hence, Smith is looking for a significant turnaround in Saturday's Toyota 200 at World Wide Technology Raceway, the second leg of the Triple Truck Challenge (1:30 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
To do so, he'll have to avoid the litany of mistakes that have hurt him in the last three races.
"Darlington for one, having engine issues, and then kind of rebound at North Wilkesboro and had such a good truck after starting in the back and driving up to second, and then me speeding on pit road during that final stop frustrated me even more," Smith said.
"Then we went into Charlotte, and I knew how important clean air was on the truck and we had a parts failure of gear oils spraying the rear tires while running the truck race. I'm not blaming that on why I spun out, but I don't think that really helped.
"We got to third in the truck race and spun out in front of the field and got more damage, so my truck guys have been working their butts off trying to fix all these trucks and trying to stay competitive."
Corey Heim won last year's CRAFTSMAN Truck Series race at World Wide Technology Raceway from the pole. Ben Rhodes won the first Triple Truck Challenge race and a $50,000 bonus May 26 at Charlotte. A second win at Gateway would be worth $150,000 to the driver of the No. 99 ThorSport Racing Ford.
--By Reid Spencer, NASCAR NewsWire, Special to Field Level Media