After eight months of racing across seven different eastern states, a look back at the 2018 NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour season is a measure of the domination Justin Bonsignore displayed on the track.
Bonsignore rolled to his first championship in his ninth full-time season of competition, winning eight of 16 events and finishing inside the top-10 in all but one race. Bonsignore clinched the championship with one race remaining on the schedule, but celebrated his first trophy by completing a sweep of the four events at Thompson Speedway Motorsports Park in the season-finale.
Bonsignore becomes the first champion not named Ryan Preece (2013) or Doug Coby (2012, 2014-17) to win the championship in the last seven years.
“It’s a never give up attitude from Justin and that team at Ken Massa Motorsports,” Jimmy Wilson, the director of the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour, said. “Ken has been making various changes to the team every year to get the best combination, and racing is a team sport. You have to have the total package, and they have to jell. Ken continued to believe in Justin and it more than showed itself on the race track this year. You have to be able to hit your marks at all of these tracks, and Justin — and Doug Coby for the last several years — have figured out how to have the total package.”
Bonsignore’s path to the championship may have seemed easy if you look at the statistics he put together, but with competition on the Whelen Modified Tour at an all-time high, it certainly wasn’t an easy task. Over the course of 16 races, at nine different tracks, a total of 61 different drivers took the green flag. Of them, eight different drivers visited Victory Lane, and the average car count per race was just under 30, the best the Whelen Modified Tour has seen since 2015.
“The Whelen Modified Tour is in a good position. Car counts have been trending up this year, as well as the average from year-to-year,” Wilson said. “The racing was outstanding this year in the modified community. Even though Justin won eight races, he had to come through a very stout field to do it.”
With 14 different Sunoco Rookie of the Year contenders hitting the track, the battle went right to the wire, with Tommy Catalano and Blake Barney battling it out at the season finale. It was Catalano who sealed that crown, after only anticipating running just a few select races.
“The group of Rookie of the Year competitors that came into the series this year, and the number of them, I think that also speaks loudly to the state of the series. You have a lot of young Rookie’s who have come in and excelled, and you have Ryan Preece, who is a former champion of the Whelen Modified Tour, who has the opportunity to get an opportunity to get a full-time Monster Energy Cup Series ride,” Wilson said. “All of it together, it just puts the icing on the cake. It was a really good season competition wise.”
Arguably the best race of the season was the one that put the series on the ultimate stage. As part of the inaugural Full Throttle Weekend at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in September, the Whelen Modified Tour drivers competed in the longest race in history — a 250-lap, $25,000 to win event on the 1.058-mile oval. In a battle to the final turn, where the two leaders wrecked, 20-year-old Chase Dowling escaped the chaos to score his first career win.
“It was very important to get that event there and make the Whelen Modified Tour the marquee race for that weekend. To me, that race is kinda what the CocaCola 600 meant to the Cup Series when that event started, because it tests drivers and machines. A lot of people look at the race and figured there would be a lot of engine fatigue, and a lot of people were doubting how that event would turn out, but we went in there and turned a lot of heads in positive direction,” Wilson said.
“It was a great race because the teams came in there well prepared. With $100 per lap, it made drivers work for it and try to lead as many laps as possible. There was a lot of strategy because the teams were in a lot of unknowns with green flag pit stops and fuel mileage. They had to step out of their comfort zones, and you hate to see a wreck at the end of it, but you had four cars you could have thrown a blanket over going into Turn 3 on the last lap. All going for $25,000.”
With all of the anticipation already growing for next year, Wilson is ready to see what the new season will look like for fans, and he is optimistic.
“I think you will continue to see solid car counts, the phone has already been ringing with new teams that are looking to come and run with us,” Wilson said. “We are well on our way to putting together the 2019 schedule, and in a lot of ways, you will see it remain the same with a lot of the staple tracks and events we have.”
For now, the Whelen Modified Tour will begin looking forward to the 2019 campaign, and the season-opener, which will be back at a familiar place.
“I think when the schedule comes out everyone is going to be really pleased with what they see.”