Championship seasons are meant to be celebrated, especially one the caliber of what Justin Bonsignore and the Ken Massa Motorsports No. 51 team put together on the 2018 NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour. After winning eight of the 16 races on the schedule, the team celebrated their first tour championship in October. But eventually, celebrating gives way to wanting to start fresh and do it all over again.
That is just what Bonsignore is ready to do in 2019. Despite racing TQ Midgets indoors over the off-season and getting a win just last weekend, the call of 600 horsepower awaits. A call which rings even louder following Florida Speedweeks, after the team passed on going to New Smyrna Speedway for the World Series; instead electing to stay at home and prepare in the shop.
Now with the tour heading to South Carolina and Myrtle Beach Speedway to open up a new season this weekend, the Holtsville, New York champion is ready to cut loose once again.
“We’ve been ready to go pretty much since Thompson ended. We didn’t want 2018 to end, but at the same time we wanted to clinch the championship and celebrate all of our accomplishments. We sure are ready to get down there and see what we got for this year,” Bonsignore said on Speed51’s The Morning Bullring. “We watched New Smyrna on FansChoice and all the social media stuff on Speed51. Seeing all of your buddies go race every night is tough, but we’re ready to go.”
The first race of the year is also one of the Whelen Modified Tour’s greatest challenges, with Myrtle Beach sporting the most abrasive surface on the schedule, an aggregate capable of devouring the 15-inch tires.
Keys to winning at Myrtle Beach include being conservative behind the wheel, having a keen crew chief, and having a kick-butt crew capable of fast stops on pit road. Crew chief Ryan Stone and the No. 51 crew proved their worth many times in 2018. Now, it’s just up to Bonsignore to find the balance on track in order to get his first win there.
“It’s a great time to go down there, it’s a great race track,” he said. “If they had fresh pavement on it, it would probably be my favorite race track, just the way it’s shaped and the characteristics of it. But, it’s tough to play that strategy-type of race where you are just saving your tires. As a race car driver you want to go as fast as you can the whole time. But, once a year it’s cool to mix it up, get the pit crew involved and have the crew chiefs with the different strategies.”
Often times Modified drivers will keep driving strategies close to their chest, but in the case of Myrtle Beach, there are no secrets to just how gingerly drivers have to go, especially on a long green flag run.
“I’d say at most you’re probably at half-throttle, not using any brake, just rolling out of it, letting the car roll through the center of the corner like an egg is under the throttle,” Bonsignore explained. “Once you get to fifty or sixty laps in a run, you may be three-eighths throttle even. It’s managing your tires, waiting until as late as possible to get four tires in any position this weekend, so you’ll use one as an extra right-rear during the race.”
That being said, there comes a time when drivers have to do what they do best: go all out.
“The last 20 or 30 laps you’re going as hard as you can, but after 10 or 15 laps the tires are just gone. It’s a tough thing to balance, it just depends on when the cautions fall, and if you still got tires left in the pit box,” Bonsignore stated.
Even faced with the brain teaser that Myrtle Beach has become, Bonsignore knows that in order to bring another championship trophy home to Long Island he and the team will have to keep one eye on the races still to come.
Last season, Bonsignore considered himself one of many hunters looking to end Doug Coby’s title streak. After reaching that goal in dominating form, staying the hunter will be a tough challenge with a target now firmly on his back bumper.
“As great as 2018 was, we’re on to 2019 and we got to stay focused. We know everybody’s gunning for us now the way we were gunning for Doug, so it’s going to be tough to stay on top,” he admitted. “We won half the races (in 2018), we could’ve possibly won four more. We finished second twice, and we were leading both races at New Hampshire late.”
While Bonsignore would like to repeat or even improve on his results in 2018, he knows doing so will be anything but easy. Rather than keep the tension high, he and the 51 crew are simply resolved to get title number two by any means. Perhaps by doing this, they get on that same road again in 2019.
“It’s going to be tough to win eight races again. Realistically, you can’t anticipate that you’re going to do that,” he said. “We know we can go out and win a few. But, the main goal is going to be to go out and win another championship; that’s the ultimate goal. If we have to win one race and the championship, so be it. Whatever it takes to win the championship, that’s what we’ll do. But we would like to go and rack up more wins, it makes it easier to points race when you’re winning.”
Bonsignore begins his title defense this Saturday, March 16 at Myrtle Beach Speedway in South Carolina. Race fans unable to make the trip will be able to follow along throughout the day with Speed51’s Race Day Now coverage.
-Story by: Connor Sullivan, Speed51.com Northeast Editor – Twitter: @Connor51CT
-Photo credit: Speed51.com