Eight wins, five poles, an average finish of 3.4 over 16 races, and a first career NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour season title. Those are some of the numbers that Justin Bonsignore put up over the 2018 Tour season, setting a standard that no one was able to come close to matching.
Despite clinching the championship during the season’s penultimate race at Stafford Motor Speedway on September 30, the Holtsville, NY driver was still coming to grips with the level of the accomplishment after winning the season’s final race at Thompson Speedway Motorsports Park on October 14.
Now with two months, and the NASCAR banquet in Charlotte, NC, now having passed, the full impact of the season is now finally being felt by Bonsignore.
“It’s definitely getting there after going to Charlotte for the banquet over that week, everything NASCAR did for us, it was a big help,” Bonsignore told Speed51.com. “It’s still surreal in a way, so it was great to celebrate and take all that in with the team and their families. It was a great experience.”
Such a season would be difficult under normal circumstances, but this dream season occurred following a major team shakeup which began around this time of year after the 2017 season. First was the transition over to the LFR chassis, and second was the introduction of veteran crew chief Ryan Stone to the Ken Massa Motorsports No. 51 team.
While both marks sported impressive records prior to 2018, Bonsignore never would have envisioned that the new combination would have yielded such amazing results during the season.
“Not at all, around this time last year we had just signed Ryan right before Christmas, we had purchased the cars; we were in the middle of a big transition. We didn’t know what to expect until after the New Year when Ryan and I sat down, got a look at the cars, and started to make our plans,” Bonsignore recalled.
“To say we were going to go out and have year we ended up having, I don’t think any driver would say that. It’s still crazy to look back at what we accomplished in our first year together.”
As a Long Island born driver, Bonsignore’s early racing background was built on the quarter-mile bullring that of Riverhead Raceway. So it should come as no surprise that Riverhead races are always considered "must win" by both Bonsignore and car owner Ken Massa, who also hails from the Island.
The 51 squad lived up to their own expectations at home, winning the two Riverhead races, and completing a bullring sweep which began in early June at Seekonk Speedway (MA).
“Anytime we go to Riverhead it’s always circled, being our home track. We want to contend for the win, you leave there disappointed if you don’t win. I’m glad we were able to go there with brand new equipment, brand new crew chief, and win both of those races in the fashion we did. Ryan was a little nervous going into those races to perform at my home track, he knows the level we want to compete there.”
At the other end of the spectrum is Bonsignore’s favorite track away from home, the 5/8-mile, high-banked, high-speed wonder that is Thompson Speedway Motorsports Park (CT). Hosting four races, a quarter of the Whelen Modified Tour schedule, "The Big T" is one of the most difficult multi-event tracks to work a season sweep at. In the end, no problem for the 51 camp.
“Thompson is always a great track for me, to be able to pull that sweep off the way we did after clinching the championship was really awesome. I lost a race there when Doug (Coby) completed the sweep, so I felt like it was a nice little revenge in a way.”
When all is said and done, there is one race win that might just rank above all other for 2018 for Bonsignore. After eight previous starts at the titan of a racetrack that is Bristol Motor Speedway (TN), Bonsignore finally claimed his first win at “The Last Great Coliseum”. A victory which took added meaning in recent months when it was confirmed that the NASCAR Modifieds would not be going back in 2019.
“Without a doubt Bristol is going to be one to remember. We had gone there for a long time, gotten a couple of poles and have always been competitive. We just never had a car that was just good enough at the right time to end the race. We had heard the rumblings that it might be the last year there, and we really wanted badly to win there,” Bonsignore explained.
“They changed the package around, we were great all day with it, and to cross that one off the list was great. Very appreciative to get the last one, going down in history as the last Modified winner.”
Not surprisingly, Bonsignore is taking a lot of pride in the season, but above that is the feeling of happiness to be able to do it for his team and car owner Ken Massa, the pairing having stood the test of time and competition for just around ten years now.
“I’ve been with Ken a long time now. He’s become like a second family to me; him, his wife, the kids, we’re always doing stuff together and enjoying life. To be able to accomplish this together meant that much more, neither one of us gave up on each other over the ten years we’ve been together. Winning our first title together as a team was really important to me, and I’m grateful we could do it.”
After a no-win nightmare of a 2017 season, Ryan Stone was brought in to turn things around for the 51 team. Not only did his efforts help wield results above his and Bonsignore’s own wildest dreams, but it also helped to spark an instant relationship of trust and friendship between the two.
“Ryan, even though he’s only been on the team for a year, he fits right in to that category. He just gelled with our team instantly, with Ken, and myself. He’s a really good guy to be around, he works very hard, and he’s been around the sport a long time. He’s payed his dues and for us to have that type of year together just like that is even more special.”
With 2019 just days away, Bonsignore is getting ready to defend another title he earned in 2018, the Indoor Auto Racing Series TQ Midget championship, starting January 4 and 5 in Allentown, PA. At the same time he and Stone are preparing their Modifieds for their first outing of 2019, which is circled on March 16 at Myrtle Beach Speedway (SC), the season opener for the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour.
Even with the notion of a repeat being even more difficult than the first, Bonsignore doesn’t see any reason KMM can’t have another dream season in 2019.
“Ryan is working hard on the cars. I’m getting ready to do some Indoor Racing, excited to get that going, and go for two straight. On the Modified, we’re looking to match and see if we can duplicate what we did this year. It will be tough, but we’ll manage our expectations to go defend the title. It will be hard to match the wins and the poles, but if circumstances go our way, I don’t see why we can’t do that.”
-Story by: Connor Sullivan, Speed51.com Northeast Editor – Twitter: @Connor51CT
-Photo credit: Rick Ibsen/Speed51.com