After an unpredictable 2020 season, 2021 promises to bring the same excitement Modified fans have come to love.
It all starts in Virginia at Martinsville Speedway Thursday night for the Virginia Is For Racing Lovers 200. And it will wrap up Saturday, Sept. 25, at Connecticut’s Stafford Motor Speedway with the 48th Annual NAPA Auto Parts Fall Final. Every race will air live on NBC Sports Gold TrackPass and tape delayed on NBCSN.
In between, plenty of action and emerging stars vying for race wins and the 37th championship in tour history.
A REVAMPED SCHEDULE
The 2021 schedule is made up of 14 races, from Maine to Virginia, highlighted by three shared Cup weekends and three new tracks.
In just two days, the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour returns to Martinsville for 200 laps in the series’ first visit to the track since 2010.
After a year away due to the pandemic, both New York’s Riverhead Raceway and Oswego Speedway are back on the schedule, each with a pair of race dates. Jennerstown Speedway in Pennsylvania, which stepped in last year as the tour season-opener, has a date this year on Memorial Day weekend.
The tour heads to New Hampshire Motor Speedway in July for 100 laps as part of the Cup Series weekend.
Stafford hosts three Tour races in 2021, including the 49th Annual NAPA Auto Parts Spring Sizzler in April.
There are other tracks making a long-awaited return to the schedule, too, and another making its first foray onto the Whelen Modified Tour scene.
Richmond also brings the tour south for their September Cup weekend, and Maine’s Beech Ridge Motor Speedway will see ground-pounder action for the first time since 2005.
New York International Raceway in Lancaster will host its first race on July 31. Western New York is a traditional modified hotbed, and the track joins Oswego on the schedule.
Defending Tour champion Justin Bonsignore dealt with plenty of schedule curveballs in his 2020 title run. And 2021 isn’t a concern for him.
“I welcome the new tracks,” Bonsignore said. “Any time a new facility is willing to host the Modified Tour, that’s a huge thing and we really appreciate the racetracks that are on the schedule this year with all the uncertainties of COVID. For them to take on the task of hosting a Tour race, that’s really, really cool.”
CHASING DOWN THE CHAMPS
The biggest question mark coming into 2021 in terms of competition: Who is going to stop the juggernaut that is Bonsignore and the No. 51 Phoenix Communications Chevrolet team?
It’s one of the greatest runs of success in Modified history. They’ve finished in the top 10 in 20 straight races and inside the top five 15 consecutive times, streaks that date back to June and August of 2019. Last year, Bonsignore’s average finish of 2.7 set the all-time record for best average finish by any Whelen Modified Tour champion.
Ron Silk was one of the hottest drivers in the series in the back half of the 2020 season. After the No. 85 team withdrew from the August race at Jennerstown, the 2011 tour champion tore off five top-three finishes including two wins to wrap up the year.
While he didn’t win a race in 2020, Jon McKennedy rallied late in the season to finish second in the standings in his first full-time season. Working with Tommy Baldwin, McKennedy was the only driver besides Bonsignore to finish all nine races inside the top 10. McKennedy’s average finish of 5.6 was far and away the best of his tour career.
Of course, it would be silly to count out six-time Tour champion Doug Coby. In his first year as an owner-driver, Coby won a race at New Hampshire’s White Mountain Motorsports Park, making 2020 the 10th straight season he won a race; That tops all other active drivers. Coby also scored two poles en route to a third-place points finish.
A 22nd in the season-finale at Thompson was the only time Coby failed to score a top-10 all year.
Coby was the only driver to keep within striking distance of Bonsignore in points. With championship No. 7 at stake, Coby will almost certainly be in the title discussion down the stretch.
And don’t forget about Craig Lutz. Lutz won a pair of races in 2020. In doing so, Lutz became one of three drivers, along with Bonsignore and Silk, to win multiple races last season. More consistency from Lutz would vault him into serious championship contention. Considering the steps that the No. 46 team took in 2019 and 2020, Lutz appears ready to do just that.
For their part, the No. 51 Ken Massa-owned team finished building a new car this offseason that will make its debut at Martinsville. They plan to use it alongside their other chassis that have led the Tour in wins the last three seasons.
“We have a program in our team where we rotate cars based on the schedule,” Bonsignore said. “I’m sure we’ll continue to do that this year as well, but we’re just looking to see how this new car debuts. If it’s really successful, we’ll probably use it more than we expect to.”
FANS BACK IN THE STANDS
When the Modifieds take the green flag at Martinsville, the grandstands will be open at 30 percent capacity. That will give the tour its largest crowd since the 2019 season.
Connecticut currently allows racetracks to operate at 50 percent capacity, meaning another robust crowd when the series heads north to Stafford for the Spring Sizzler.
The 2021 Whelen Modified Tour season will be decidedly more normal than a year ago. It’s something that Bonsignore looks forward to as things begin to open up over the course of the spring and summer.
“The fact that we can go to a big facility like Martinsville and have a 30 percent capacity, that’s great for our series,” Bonsignore said. That would be an awesome crowd.”
Bonsignore’s victory at the season-opener at Jennerstown last May underscored to him what fans mean to a raceday atmosphere, when he got out of his car to complete silence in front of an empty grandstand.
“You always realize how important fans are, but when they’re not there at all, it just really is eye-opening,” Bonsignore said. “We definitely miss the fans being at the racetrack. Whether they’re cheering or booing for you, they’re just diehards about our series. To me, that’s what makes the Modified Tour so special.”
The 2021 Whelen Modified Tour season is just about here. It’s going to be one heck of a ride.