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.
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.”
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.”
On a beautiful western Pennsylvania day the NASCAR WMT finally got its season off the the ground with the Wade Cole 133 at the Jennerstown Speedway Complex.
The complex hosted the NASCAR WMT for the first time since 2006 when the late TC Ted Christopher driving the back up Ed Whelan #86 overcame an early bobble to take the win.
Justin finished the 2019 season with a win at Thompson but just missed winning the championship. Fast forward to 2020 Justin Bonsignore in the Ken Massa owned Phoenix Communications #51 started from the pole and dominated all 133 laps. Even after all the teams had 5 minute break to adjust the cars they were no match for the #51 machine. His opening day win is a big statement that he will be a top contender for the 2020 championship,.
Second place finisher Craig Lutz in the Riverhead Building Supply #46 charged to second place but that’s as far as he would move up.
Jon McKennedy lucked out with and an issue right before the break and passed several cars to finish 3rd may have been the fastest as the laps ran out.
The unofficial finish of the WadeCole 133 at Jennerstown Speedway Complex. June 21st 2020
Three months delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour season begins on Sunday at Jennerstown Speedway with the Morocco Welding/Wade Cole Memorial 133 presented by Dunleavy Truck and Trailer Repair.
The race will be streamed on TrackPass on NBC Sports Gold, live and free, with the green flag set to drop at 2:30 p.m. There will be no spectators in attendance and teams are limited to just eight members per crew, including the driver. NASCAR will also follow all social distancing and guidelines given by state and local officials.
The original 2020 schedule has been tossed into the blender and come out in pieces, with a new puzzle for officials to put together. It will mark the first time the Whelen Modified Tour season doesn’t begin in March or April in the modern era, and the first year it begins at Jennerstown. The track was originally scheduled to host the tour on May 23, but the race was postponed and rescheduled for August 22.
Sunday’s Father’s Day special was added as a second event at the Pennsylvania oval for the 2020 season.
In 14 previous tour races at Jennerstown, some of the top competitors in the history of the series visited Victory Lane. Names like Reggie Ruggerio, Tony Hirschman, Mike Stefanik and Ted Christopher all carried the checkered flag.
As of Thursday, Jennerstown is the only race scheduled for June. The full schedule is unclear due to the COVID-19 pandemic, however, multiple races have already been affected:
South Boston Speedway — March 21 — POSTPONED
Thompson Speedway — April 5 — POSTPONED
Stafford Speedway — April 26 — POSTPONED
Martinsville Speedway — May 8 — CANCELLED
Jennerstown Speedway — May 23 — RESCHEDULED (August 22)
Myrtle Beach Speedway — May 30 — POSTPONED
Seekonk Speedway — June 6 — POSTPONED
Riverhead Raceway — June 20 — RESCHEDULED (October 17)
New Hampshire Motor Speedway — July 18 — CANCELLED
Iowa Speedway — July 31 — CANCELLED
Sources have confirmed to My Race News that NASCAR is engaging with all options for the 2020 season, including running additional races down south, if necessary. Most New England race tracks have been closed due to the pandemic, but Stafford Motor Speedway announced Saturday they would tentatively open their season on June 26. No details were released about whether the Whelen Modified Tour will be part of their schedule.
There are 35 drivers on the entry list for the opener, including a mix of former Whelen Modified Tour champions, series regulars, Riverhead Raceway regulars and more. See the full list at the link below.
New year, new number, new car owner. Same Doug Coby.
He looks to start another championship tenure the same way he did last year — with the checkered flag in his hand. After winning his sixth title, Coby received the news that car owner Mike Smeriglio would retire from the tour and he was left without a ride. After an offseason filled with phone calls and attempts to find the right ride, Coby ended up taking things into his own hands, creating his own team, and continuing the tradition with Phil Moran as crew chief.
The path towards a seventh series championship is going to be the toughest Coby has ever dealt with. Running his own team won’t be an easy task, but the reward of capturing another title while doing it would cement his legacy even further.
Justin Bonsignore, the 2018 series champion, is the top contender to take Coby back off the top. Bonsignore won 14 of 32 races the last two years with Ken Massa Motorsports, and has proven to be a top-three car at every track where he unloads.
It seems like the transfer to Ryan Stone as crew chief was the spark Bonsignore needed to become a full-time title contender.
Bonsignore started last year slowly, with two finishes outside the top-10, but was able to charge back to compete with Coby for the title at the finale at Thompson Speedway Motorsports Park. He may have come up short, but he earned his sixth win of the season and looks to carry the momentum forward.
Myrtle Beach and Bonsignore have a mixed relationship. He’s led 49 laps at the South Carolina oval, with finishes of sixth, fifth and 12th. A strong start to the season will be important towards building that championship form.
The third and most realistic driver that can win the championship is Craig Lutz. The Miller Place, New York, native earned his first tour win last year at Stafford Motor Speedway’s NAPA Fall Final, and finished top-five in nine of 16 races. Prior to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Lutz competed at New Smyrna Speedway’s World Series of Asphalt Stock Car Racing, earning a victory on the second night of racing in February of 2020.
Lutz has the crew to get the job done, and the firepower behind the wheel to compete with the best the modified tour has to offer. After finishing fourth in the standings last year, the one thing he might need to work on is finishing inside the top-10 on a more frequent basis. He finished outside the top-10 four times last year, while Coby earned 10th or better in every race but one.
If Lutz can seal up those top-10 runs even on a bad day, he should be able to run with Coby and Bonsignore and threaten to take the title from them.
Three wins last year and a series championship to his credit, Ron Silk is coming into 2020 looking to storm to title form once again. He went into the finale last year with a shot at knocking Coby off the top.
Silk told RaceDayCT.com that he wouldn’t be attending the Myrtle Beach opener, originally scheduled for May 30, but that race was postponed due to rain.
Silk and his Kevin Stuart Motorsports team plan to attend Jennerstown and try to get their season rolling in Victory Lane. They are one of few favorites to knock Coby and Bonsignore off the top.
ONES TO WATCH
Could 2020 be the year that Woody Pitkat returns to the championship battle? In 2015, driving for Buzz Chew Motorsports, Pitkat entered Thompson’s finale with a strong chance of earning title gold. He left that race third in the final tally, and his career took a bit of a spiral after that, with Chew deciding to leave as a car owner on the tour.
Pitkat bounced around to a few different teams in the last four years, but seems to have found a home with former NASCAR Whelen Southern Modified Tour championship car owner Eddie Harvey to chase the title in 2020. Pitkat has four wins in 158 career Whelen Modified Tour starts, with one of them coming last year at Wall Stadium Speedway driving for Danny Watts.
The experience level is through the roof for Pitkat — he’s a former champion at Stafford Motor Speedway in their SK Modified division, and multiple-time champion at Thompson Speedway Motorsports Park. Connecting with Harvey gives him the equipment and crew backing he needs to return to the top of modified tour racing in New England and beyond.
Eric Goodale would be the first to admit his team needs a bit more consistency if they want to contend for the championship. But his major goal entering 2020? Return to Victory Lane.
Goodale had just two top-five finishes last year, with 9 top-10s, but he needs a bit more front-end speed to get the job done. Goodale finished last season with a brand new chassis for the last handful of races, and will look to take that car to the front of the field starting at Jennerstown.
If he can return to Victory Lane, and the consistency can follow, his path towards contending for the title would come with it. In 2017, he went into the finale in mathematical contention for the crown.
In a conversation with My Race News, Emerling said he’s looking forward to putting a little bit of extra effort in to try and chase the championship. He’s one of many drivers happy about the Myrtle Beach race being postponed. He made his NASCAR Xfinity Series debut for Our Motorsports that day, and wouldn’t have been able to race.
Now, he heads to Jennerstown, a track he has experience at — looking to spark some success in the opener.
The new guy in town.
Rypkema, a regular in New York, competed in his first six Whelen Modified Tour races over the last two years. But now, it’s time to take it to the next level. Rypkema purchased equipment from Mike Smeriglio Racing when he retired last year and is ready for his first full-time campaign.
Can he take the equipment that’s proven to win championships and compete for wins? Time will tell.
Like Goodale, the goal for Matt Swanson in 2020 is going to be to visit Victory Lane. If he can do it, the party may never end. The Acton, Massachusetts, native is driving the historic ‘Ole Blue’ for Boehler Racing, a ride he took over after Rowan Pennink retired with a back injury. Last year, Swanson finished inside the top-10 nine times and scored a best finish of third in the finale at Thompson.
The one glaring point missing from his resume? A series win. Swanson is driving to visit the winner’s circle in 2020.
Dowling was the only driver to show consistent speed with Justin Bonsignore in 2018, scoring his first win and finishing second in the championship standings driving for LFR Chassis. Now, Dowling has a new ride for 2020, after splitting last year between two teams.
Dowling has teamed with Danny Watts for the 2020 season and will compete in a full schedule. They were not planning on attending Myrtle Beach, but now have their eyes set on Jennerstown.
Dowling has one victory, the inaugural Musket 250 at New Hampshire in 2018, with 20 top-five finishes in 66 starts. Watts is a former winning car owner on the tour, and has now paired with a winning driver who has plenty of modified experience, growing up through the ranks of Stafford Motor Speedway.
Dowling will also run a full-time SK Modified season at Stafford.
The 2018 Sunoco Rookie of the Year is coming off a successful season where he earned his first career pole and led 70 laps. He has two years under his belt, and has proven the car has the speed to race well.
He just needs to put the together the contingency to prove it. If the circumstances are right, Catalano will be a threat to visit Victory Lane in 2020.
After years away from running on the tour, Pasteryak returned to racing in 2018, and scored his first top five in 10 years last season. Pasteryak also earned his first career pole at Stafford for the NAPA Fall Final.
This could be the year he breaks into Victory Lane.
Although Sapienza wasn’t planning to attend the opener at Myrtle Beach, he is heading to Jennerstown looking to score. He’s returning to full-time action in 2020 after suffering a back injury at Wall Stadium Speedway, where he missed a majority of the races.
Time will tell if he runs full-time or not.
Does McKennedy chase the title? Driving for Tommy Baldwin, McKennedy earned his first career Whelen Modified Tour win at Myrtle Beach Speedway two years ago. Now, he’s coming back looking to pounce in what is going to be a shortened schedule due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Last year, the combination ran eight races, scoring five top-five runs and a best finish of second at Stafford in August. They’ve proven they can win and compete at the front of the field with the speed to win on a regular basis.
OTHERS IN THE FIGHT
Whether it comes to wins or championships is yet to be determined, but there are plenty of other drivers in contention for 2020.
Names like Timmy Solomito, who has a family-owned brand new car and plans to run a partial schedule. Ronnie Williams, a multiple-time SK Modified champion at Stafford Motor Speedway, is planning to run a partial schedule with the same team he runs with at Stafford.
Rob Summers, Sam Rameau, J.B. Fortin, Calvin Carroll, Ken Heagy, Melissa Fifield, Bobby Santos III, Kyle Bonsignore, Anthony Nocella, Kyle Ellwood, Andrew Krause, Burt Myers, and more are all expected at some point.