A STORY BY NASCAR.COM/KYLE SOUZA
It wasn’t all a dream. After eight years of trying, Justin Bonsignore finally had everything go his way last year on the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour. He finally could call himself a champion. Eight wins, five poles, and top 10 finishes in all but one race was more than enough to clinch his first title. The short-track, Saturday night, veteran at Riverhead Raceway on Long Island, found his way to the top of NASCAR’s Modified ranks.
"On paper, we thought we could go out and be successful, but even looking back on it now, it’s pretty amazing what we accomplished," Bonsignore said. "For anyone to say they were going to go out and accomplish what we did, you’d say they were crazy. We had high expectations, but we were able to go out and execute them on a weekly basis."
WHELEN MODIFIED TOUR: 2019 Schedule | Race Center | History & Records
But as much as he enjoys looking back and celebrating, business is about to pick up back on the race track. Bonsignore enters Saturday’s Whelen Modified Tour opener, the Performance Plus 150 presented by Safety Kleen at Myrtle Beach Speedway, leading a stout list of competitors into a new season. He’s bringing back the same exact group from last year, minus one new team member that will help to drive the hauler to the track.
After an overhaul during the 2017 offseason, Bonsignore wasn’t really sure what to expect when last year started. His Kenneth Massa Motorsports team welcomed Ryan Stone as their new crew chief, as Stone moved from NASCAR Xfinity Series powerhouse JR Motorsports to New England to start working on the brand new LFR Chassis’ that Bonsignore was going to drive.
Looking back, that move might be exactly what the team needed to etch their names into the record books, and now, he’s ready to begin the second year with a crew chief he feels fits his style well.
"It all goes back to Ryan. He was really instrumental is us making the switch to LFR because he knows the ins and outs of them just as well as anyone. He’s been on numerous other teams, but this was his first shot at having his own team and I think he took a lot of pride in that opportunity," Bonsignore said. "He pretty much just lives at the shop doing everything we need to make the cars successful. The Xfinity program probably helped him more than anything. He learned how to be thorough and when you’re at that level of racing there is someone watching every quarter-inch of the car. He learned how to be a team leader. He stepped right in at the first race and it was like he had been with us for years. He jelled with the team and he understood what I was looking for and the lingo I was using. It was just a natural transition."
Even though Bonsignore won on a variety of different tracks last year, spanning from a clean sweep of Riverhead all the way to his victory in the non-points All-Star Shootout at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in July, Bonsignore is ready to welcome two new facilities onto the calendar. The Whelen Modified Tour will visit South Boston Speedway in Virginia on March 30 for the second race of the season. In the past, the Whelen Southern Modified Tour visited South Boston 11 times, including two stops in 2016. Justin is actually familiar with the .4-mile oval — but not in the position on the race team that you would think.
Justin Bonsignore, the spotter?
"I’m a Riverhead guy who has always run well at the short-tracks in my career. I went to South Boston for the last Southern Tour race and spotted for my cousin Kyle, and we almost won the race. I was excited for that even as the spotter," Justin said. "I fell in love with the place without even running a lap there. Ryan has experience there with some of the southern LFR teams, so I’m confident in the setup."
After Myrtle Beach and South Boston, a trip back to New England for the 45th annual Icebreaker weekend at Thompson Speedway Motorsports Park will give Bonsignore the chance to win a fifth straight race at the Connecticut oval. He swept the races at the facility last year. In May, Wall Stadium, a high-banked short-track in New Jersey, returns to the schedule on May 18.
"I’ve been there before for the Turkey Derby, so I have an understanding of the race track. Ryan has helped some customers there and won the Turkey Derby there last year crew chief on an SK car," the Holtsville, New York, veteran said. "I know when we get there and unload we are going to be fast. I’m excited the Tour is going to new places."
So, with the offseason nearly in the rear-view mirror, what are the Kenneth Massa Motorsports team members setting for expectations this year? Is it fair to say his dominance will continue right from the drop of the first green flag? Or will another challenger rise to the occasion?
"It’s the same as we had going into last year," Bonsignore said of the mindset. "If you think you can do that, you’re insane. The Tour is so competitive and we will never take last year for granted, and we were even in position to win even more races. But you take some of the wins we had and we ended up capitalizing on someone else’s mistake. It’s so hard to think you can go out and win eight races."
"The biggest goal is to defend our championship. Every year is going to be different. You have to be realistic and manage the expectations."
One of the best parts of the whole experience, and part of the reason why some of the momentum still sits on his side entering a new season, is the fact that he was able to add his name to a long list of storied Whelen Modified Tour champions. Bonsignore broke Doug Coby’s four-straight championship streak, and now, everyone is chasing him.
"We chased Doug all of those years and he had the target on his back, and they knew it, and they succeeded with it. I hate to say it, but I do feel like that target is on our back now," Bonsignore said. "It’s a pretty cool feeling because we’ve chased it for so long. I feel like it’s going to be tough to repeat. Doug went down to Florida to learn and compete, Timmy Solomito bought new cars, the No. 58 (Eric Goodale) is doing a lot to improve, Matt Swanson, and more… there are a lot of good teams. We really focused during the offseason on not resting on what we did this year. We just want to try the next idea, next setup. They are going to catch us at some point. That’s what makes this racing game fun."
Bonsignore says he wants to start the season off strong for the second straight year in hopes of creating some additional success. Bonsignore led 26 laps at Myrtle Beach last year and finished fifth. What is he expecting at the gritty, South Carolina, track that is known for eating up tires?
"You always want to get off to a good start, more than anything, for the confidence and momentum," Bonsignore said. "You don’t want to have to dig out of a whole. Myrtle Beach is really one in its own. There are so many different strategies there that could play out."
Overall, even though it’s a new season, but Bonsignore is hoping for the same result. Returning with car owner Ken Massa, and crew chief Ryan Stone, and the same group of crew members, the sky is going to be the limit starting on Saturday.
"Ken is one of my best friends, I go to him for basically anything. He’s just a guy I have always leaned on. I know he knows how I feel about my loyalty to him and wanting to accomplish this all with each other. We both remained so loyal to each other," Bonsignore said.
"There were some years people were calling him on the way home from the World Series for my ride. We are just really good friends. We made this more of a family than anything, so, it was emotional once we clinched it. Seeing him, his family and knowing everything they’ve done for me and stuck behind me, it’s really special that after nine years, no one gave up on each other and we got the ultimate goal. I think we are in a really good place with Ryan leading the ship. I think we can have a few good years if we can keep everything together."