A STORY BY NASCAR.COM
Mike Stefanik. Doug Coby. Tony Hirschman. Jimmy Spencer. Donny Lia.
Those are the drivers who have won multiple championships on the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour. After a dominant 2020 campaign, Justin Bonsignore can now add his name to that very special list.
A native of Long Island, New York, Bonsignore has gone toe-to-toe with some of those legends during his Tour career. Now, he’s well on his way to establishing himself as a Modified legend of his own.
The tone was set from the outset of the season, when the series headed to Jennerstown to open things up, more than three months later than initially planned. Bonsignore had never been to the track, and he’d been out of the driver’s seat longer than perhaps any point in his career. No matter. Bonsignore sat on the pole and led every lap en route to a win at Jennerstown on June 21. The butterflies Bonsignore had from such a long offseason went away in a flash.
"My personal confidence was sky-high," Bonsignore said. "You go to another brand-new race track and you’re like ‘okay, well I just did this a couple weeks ago my first time there, so there’s no reason we can’t go to another new racetrack and do the same’."
That’s exactly what the team did. Two weeks later, on Independence Day at White Mountain Motorsports Park, Bonsignore passed Matt Hirschman late in the going en route to another win. Already, Bonsignore was up 17 points on his closest full-time competitor, Coby.
He didn’t look back.
A third win later that year at Monadnock bolstered Bonsignore’s stranglehold on the points lead. The No. 51 team finished no worse than fifth the entire season, an incredible accomplishment. They never trailed in the point standings. It was a good, old-fashioned beatdown.
A seventh at the season-ending World Series 150 at Thompson locked up the title. Bonsignore has matured as a driver throughout his career on Tour. He’ll tell you that. It’s a change he’s noticed in himself this year.
"I think as you get a little older in life, you get smarter," Bonsignore said. "I think as I’ve gotten older the last few years, it’s definitely something I’ve paid more attention to."
"I thought a lot about it over the offseason last year, and I wanted to make sure I was smarter this year with my calls. I feel like I was noticeably calmer at the racetrack during practice, during the races, making smarter decisions."
The results? A season so consistent and so dominant that his average finish in 2020 (2.7) was even lower than in 2018, when he won half the races on the schedule. It stands as the best average finish by any champion in Tour history.
Bonsignore credits his close relationship with Massa, now going on 11 years, as being a big part of the success.
"He’s all I’ve ever known on the Tour. They’re like a second family to me," Bonsignore said. "It’s not just the racing. No matter what, if the years were up or down in the past, he stuck with me, I stuck with him when things were tough on either side. We just stuck with each other. Through thick and thin, he’s always had my back, whether it’s racing-related, personal life, financial advice."
The chemistry that he’s had building with his crew, many of whom have remained with the team for nearly a decade, was also crucial in a season with so many curveballs.
"When the schedule comes out, my guys don’t miss races," Bonsignore said. "They plan their family vacations, they plan their days off work, they plan everything around our schedule. That’s a huge commitment."
But this team had talent in the past. It always had great chemistry, too. The one thing missing? The crew chief. Enter Ryan Stone, who agreed to join the No. 51 team back in 2018. Since Stone began calling the shots, Bonsignore leads the Tour in wins, top-fives and top-10s.
"It was just instant chemistry between me and Ryan, and Ryan and the whole team," Bonsignore said. "He fit right in. He’s a funny guy. He knows when to joke and when to be serious, and the team is behind him one thousand percent. When we’re at the racetrack, everyone looks to Ryan for direction. Nobody wants to let Ryan down, and Ryan doesn’t want to let any of us down."
RELATED: Justin Bonsignore Career Stats | Ryan Stone Career Stats
Joining a select group of Modified greats didn’t sink in for Bonsignore until the championship celebration after the season finale at Thompson.
"It was really humbling to see the trophy and know we’re on there twice now, and not that many people are," he said. "The guys that are are the best of the best of our series."
With his three wins, Bonsignore sits tied with Coby at 29 — good for sixth on the all-time list. Next up are Jeff Fuller (31) and Tony Hirschman (35). Seventeen of those wins have come in the last three years.
He also has 16 career Mayhew Tools Dominator Pole Awards and is 16th all-time. He’s only 12 out of fifth, a eminently reachable goal considering his recent run of success.
After earning the fruits of years and years of labor the past three seasons, you could say that Bonsignore is living the dream. It’s something he thinks about from time to time.
"There’s many days you’re driving home from work and just thinking ‘wow, this is unbelievable what we’re able to accomplish right now’," Bonsignore said. "I’m sure after all this racing stuff is done, many years from now, we can all get together, and just talk about racing, and the trips, and the fun we had and all the success we’re having."
But Bonsignore wants to put the emphasis on "many years from now." Unfortunately for the rest of the Tour competition, Bonsignore hasn’t spent too much time dwelling on the winning he’s done. After all, there’s another title to be won in 2021 and onward.
"It just makes me want to be the guy that can get to three now," Bonsignore said.
Only 32 years old, Bonsignore has a lot of racing ahead of him. More important to him than going down as an all-time driver, however, is making sure the entire No. 51 operation itself goes down as an all-timer.
"I don’t need the people to say that I’ll go down as a great driver," Bonsignore. "I don’t care for that type of brag. I want to go down, as a group, as one of the best teams, because they deserve the credit just as much as me."
No matter what happens next, it’s pretty clear that Bonsignore and the No. 51 team have already cemented themselves as one of the most unstoppable forces in Modified history.
9/15/2022 05:12:55 pm
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