On Sunday afternoon at Thompson Speedway Motorsports Park, the focus was on Justin Bonsignore’s nearly-flawless run to the 2020 NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour championship.
Craig Lutz, however, served a reminder that there was a race to be celebrated as well.
Lutz came on strong in the final third of the race and held off a charge by Jon McKennedy to take his second Whelen Modified Tour win of the season in the World Series of Speedway Racing 150.
Lutz led 42 laps, including the final seven circuits around the high-banked Connecticut track, en route to victory in the final race of a strange season for NASCAR’s only open-wheeled division.
The Miller Place, N.Y. driver started fifth and hovered in the top five all afternoon, staying under the radar as the battle for the lead raged on.
Six-time and reigning WMT champion Doug Coby led the opening stint of the race, trying to maximize his opportunity for a seventh series crown. Coby was still mathematically in the title race, were Bonsignore to meet with misfortune early on.
Instead, it was Coby who had the first brush with disaster. On lap 22, Eric Goodale dove under Coby for the lead, only to catch Coby’s left rear and skate into the turn-three wall. Goodale was done for the day. Coby’s left rear quarter panel was crumpled, but he stayed on the track, with Lutz moving to second.
Coby held on for a few more laps after the restart, but Jon McKennedy charged from fourth to the race lead, with Lutz following to run second. McKennedy, who won the ISMA Supermodified feature that opened the afternoon, held the point until halfway. A caution flag for Dave Sapienza’s spin brought the leaders to pit road just after halfway, with McKennedy coming out of the pits behind Anthony Nocella.
Calvin Carroll opted to stay on the track, leading his first laps in Modified Tour competition while another spin tightened up the field. On the restart, Ron Silk poked his nose out front for a lap before Bonsignore led his first laps of the day. A fourth win for Bonsignore would assure him of the championship.
But the afternoon’s seventh yellow sealed the deal, with Doug Coby and Patrick Emerling making contact in turn four. Coby’s afternoon was over, ending his last-ditch bid for the title.
Bonsignore had taken the lead back from Silk just before the caution, and the soon-to-be-crowned champion brought the field back to green with 47 laps remaining. Lutz, who had restarted outside the top five after pit stops, had crept back into the top three, and wasted little time getting to the front. Bonsignore settled into second, but as the laps wore on, he faded into the clutches of McKennedy, who climbed back into second.
Ronnie Williams’ second spin of the day on lap 134 brought out the penultimate caution, pitting Lutz against McKennedy and Kyle Bonsignore with only twelve laps to go. McKennedy quickly took the lead as Dave Sapienza slammed the turn-one wall, bringing the yellow back out and setting the leaders up for an eight-lap dash to end the season.
Lutz restarted second but took the fight to McKennedy, using the high line to launch himself into the lead with seven laps left on the scoreboard. McKennedy quickly found himself playing defense, with Silk leaning on McKennedy for second. While McKennedy fended off Silk, Lutz drove off from the pack, crossing the line first for his third career Tour victory and his first ever at Thompson.
McKennedy held on for second over Silk. Justin Bonsignore was fourth, with cousin Kyle fifth. Eighteen-year-old Sam Rameau was a career-best sixth, followed by Woody Pitkat, Calvin Carroll, Patrick Emerling and rookie Tyler Rypkema.
The race was slowed twice by red flags, the first for a grinding crash between Chuck Hossfeld and Timmy Solomito. Solomito was later transported to a local hospital as a precaution, but released later that evening.
With two wins this year, Craig Lutz is maturing into another regular force on the Tour. The young racer showed flashes of potential with his family-owned team as a rookie, but resources had run thin only six races into 2017. After the summer visit to New Hampshire Motor Speedway, the Goodale Motorsports #46 opted for a driver change, bringing Lutz into the fold.
Lutz responded the following season, finishing fifth in points in 2018. In 2019, Lutz picked up his first career Tour win at Stafford (Conn.) Motor Speedway in the Fall Final, ending the year fourth in points with 12 top-ten finishes in 16 events.
This year, Lutz improved his average finish through nine races, picking up a win at Jennerstown (Penn.) Speedway in August in addition to Sunday’s World Series victory. A second straight year finishing fourth in the standings has made Lutz a driver to watch in 2021.
Lutz’ victory capped off a peculiar season, perhaps the strangest in the history of NASCAR’s oldest sanctioned division. The national response to a global pandemic laid waste to anything not deemed essential, with schedules paused and truncated as local officials debated when it was safe to allow large gatherings. NASCAR focused on its most visible properties, the national touring series, securing their plans first before tending to the regional tours.
And when the regional touring series got the green light, they were still faced with the hurdles of local limitations, of track closures and attendance caps and travel bans. Even media members were faced with restrictions of their own.
A seventeen-race schedule was pared to nine events. Replacement races were added, then subtracted, from the schedule. Others were announced with only weeks to prepare. Two races were at a track that had not hosted the Tour since 2006; two more were at a track that had not hosted a NASCAR event since 1994.
In a nine-race schedule, a single error can have devastating championship consequences.
And despite those hurdles, Justin Bonsignore set a standard for excellence. The 2018 Modified Tour champion picked up three wins, and finished no worse than fifth in the other six, for a remarkable average finish of 2.7. Doug Coby, in his first year taking the reins after team owner Mike Smeriglio’s retirement, nearly kept pace with top-ten runs in the first eight races of the year.
Precious little is known about next season in regional racing. While optimism is high for a return to some sense of normalcy, caution is also in the air. As with this season, so many factors are outside the world of motorsports itself.
But Sunday’s World Series 150 was a reminder that, in the moment, the 2020 season was not only salvaged, but could be savored.
Unofficial Results, NWMT World Series of Speedway Racing 150 at Thompson Speedway Motorsports Park:
1. (46) Craig Lutz
2. (7) Jon McKennedy
3. (85) Ron Silk
4. (51) Justin Bonsignore
5. (22) Kyle Bonsignore
6. (06) Sam Rameau
7. (1) Woody Pitkat
8. (25) Calvin Carroll
9. (07) Patrick Emerling
10. (32) Tyler Rypkema
11. (3) Matt Swanson
12. (82) Anthony Nocella
13. (75) Chris Pasteryak
14. (64) Rob Summers
15. (78) Walter Sutcliffe, Jr.
16. (18) Ken Heagy
17. (50) Ronnie Williams
18. (30) Gary Byington
19. (36) Dave Sapienza
20. (01) Melissa Fifield
21. (14) Cory Osland
22. (10) Doug Coby
23. (54) Tommy Catalano
24. (59) Andy Jankowiak
25. (2) Chuck Hossfeld
26. (66) Timmy Solomito
27. (58) Eric Goodale