By: Kyle Souza / Photo: Nate Smallwood/NASCAR
Talk about making a statement.
Justin Bonsignore made his presence felt Sunday when the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour 2020 season took the green flag at Jennerstown Speedway, three months delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Earning the pole award, and leading all 133 laps en route to the victory in the Morocco Welding/Wade Cole Memorial presented by Dunleavy Truck and Trailer Repair, Bonsignore made it clear he is going to be the favorite for the championship.
And that should come as no surprise. At the start of 2018, Bonsignore teamed with Ryan Stone (crew chief) for the first time, and since then, the combination has sparked success on a new level. Bonsignore has won 15 of 33 races teamed with Stone, including seven at Thompson Speedway in Connecticut. He’s climbed from well outside the top-15 on the Whelen Modified Tour all-time wins list to eighth, just one away from tying Doug Coby and Mike Ewanitsko, who have 28. Bonsignore’s 27 career wins have all come since the start of 2011, and he’s just 32-years-old.
LOOK BACK: Bonsignore’s Championship Season in 2018
He won 12 races before teaming with Stone, but the combination has clearly become one of the most potent in the garage area, right at the top with Phil Moran and six-time Whelen Modified Tour champion Doug Coby. Bonsignore dominated 2018, winning the title, and after a bit of slow start to 2019, finished just a few points from back-to-back titles.
“Ryan’s dedication to working on the cars,” Bonsignore said of how it’s happened so quickly. “He eats, sleeps and breathes racing. He’s at the shop everyday, even with the pandemic, he’s been there non-stop, working on the cars, the trailer, the pit equipment… he’s a difficult person to deal with during the winter when aren’t racing because he wants to go to the track everyday and race. He puts his mind to it, and he’s one of the smartest minds that modified racing has. When we come off the track, we just make small adjustments. When I give him a 1-10 scale on what the car is doing, he’s knows right away what adjustment he needs to make. I leave it up to him, and he knows the right balance, to keep me calm during the race, and keep our team going. He’s a great leader.”
While defending champion Coby opened his tenure as owner/driver with a seventh-place effort, Bonsignore took the early leap in the championship standings in what is going to be a shortened 2020 season due to COVID-19. There were 17 races on the original Whelen Modified Tour schedule, but that mark is a bit higher than teams expect to happen. Some events have been postponed, while others, including stops at Martinsville Speedway, Iowa Speedway and New Hampshire Motor Speedway (July) have been outright cancelled.
Sunday’s Fathers Day stop at Jennerstown was the first time the tour visited the Pennsylvania track since 2006. The track was on the schedule for May 23, but the race was postponed to August 22, and this race was added to the calendar. Due to restrictions put in place by NASCAR, no fans were allowed through the grandstands and the pit area was limited with 8 people per team for the Masks were required when social distancing wasn’t possible. It was a totally different feel compared to just a few short months before, where Bonsignore earned the checkered flag in the 2019 finale at Thompson Speedway in Connecticut.
“It was great to be back at the track, seeing all the crew and all of the other teams and the friends you make in the garage area,” Bonsignore said. “It was definitely different to wear the mask all day and stay social distanced while trying to do all the work. I think NASCAR did a good job. If you needed a break from a mask, they were more than willing to work with you. Anything we need to do to get back racing, we will do it.. that’s the type of people we are. We’re racers.”
The race aired live on TrackPass on NBC Sports Gold, but with no fans in the stands, Bonsignore said he could immediately sense a different feeling at the track, especially during his celebration. Bonsignore’s tradition after a victory is to spin around at the start/finish line after the race, take the checkered flag, and do a polish victory lap.
“It was weird,” Bonsignore said. “I grabbed the checkered flag and that was probably the first time that it really struck that there was no fans. I figured I would stick with my tradition, but the biggest thing was when I got out of the car without my crew guys there behind me in victory lane, I get out, stand on the door, and look at the stands and it’s completely empty. It was a weird situation.”
Bonsignore started the day off near the top of the charts in practice, won the pole after going out late in single-car qualifying, and dominated the race without challenge. He had not taken a lap on the track prior to a short practice session Sunday morning.
“Ryan brought an unbelievable race car, we unloaded really well,” Bonsignore said. “When he brings a car that is so good, even at a new race track for me, I’m able to get up to speed quickly. The second run of the day we went to the top of the board, and it just builds your confidence, I don’t have to do as much learning the track and the groove. With only 40 minutes of practice, it makes your nerve on edge… but all of those go away when you go to the top of the board.”
HIS CAREER: Deeper Look Into Bonsignore’s Year-By-Year Stats
Bonsignore’s eyes now turn towards the remainder of the 2020 championship chase — which is a bit unclear to this point. They know they will return to the track on Saturday, July 4, at White Mountain Motorsports Park in New Hampshire, a track not sanctioned by NASCAR — which will mark the inaugural tour visit to the banked-oval.
“I’ve looked into it a little bit, I watched some videos from a race they had there last year, but I’ve never been there,” Bonsignore said. “From what I see, it look cool. It kinda looks like a Monadnock Speedway, but both of the turns look like turns one and town at Monadnock. It looks like a fast-paced track. We always run well at the quarter-miles and doing well at Jennerstown takes the nerves off going to White Mountain. With everything going on in the pandemic, it’s unfortunate we lost a few marquee events but we’ve gained some tracks and I’m hopeful this will build a better schedule for us. I’m excited to go there.”