Column By: ZACH STURNIOLO / NASCAR – STAFFORD SPRINGS, CT – Justin Bonsignore cemented his place in NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour history Saturday night at Stafford Motor Speedway.
After starting his career 0-for-40 at the Connecticut half-mile, Bonsignore led the final half of the season-finale and held off an overtime charge by Doug Coby to claim his first career victory at Stafford and win his third career — and second consecutive — Modified Tour championship.
A late spin by Matt Swanson brought out the race’s second caution of the night with just five laps to go, setting Bonsignore to the inside of Coby and just ahead of title contender Patrick Emerling.
Coby got the initial jump but Bonsignore cleared the 12-time Stafford winner off Turn 4 coming to the white flag and held on to win the race and championship.
“One for 41!” Bonsignore exclaimed in Victory Lane. “Oh, I’m so glad we got that, man. Three-time champion, but I can’t get past winning at Stafford. And to beat Doug? He beat me at Riverhead (Raceway) to get his first this year, so it’s only fitting that we were able to outrun him.”
After leading at least one lap, Bonsignore only needed to finish 12th or better Saturday night to defend the title. Emerling was the only other driver eligible to win the championship entering Stafford at 16 points back, but his podium run wasn’t enough to win the title as Bonsignore controlled the final half of the contest.
“Congrats to Justin,” Emerling said. “They’ve been the fastest car all season and awesome work to them guys. We were chasing them, but hats off to my crew as well.
“We had a tight points battle there for a while and we had a lot of fun all season long. I’m just happy we were in contention up until the last race. We can finish the season and hold our heads high.”
A third-place run for Emerling seemed highly unlikely as his No. 07 car was mired mid-pack all race. The No. 07 qualified 14th and was running 17th at the time of the first caution with 21 laps to go. A quick pit stop by his crew shot him to seventh for the ensuing restart and Emerling capitalized by leaping to third ahead of the overtime yellow.
The night, however, belonged to Bonsignore despite a less-than-ideal start. While he qualified second and began on the outside of the front role, Bonsignore quickly dropped to fifth place while polesitter Anthony Nocella kept the lead and rocketed forward.
Nocella went on to lead the first 77 laps of the event, holding off notable strong charges by Coby and Jon McKennedy. But as Coby and McKennedy hounded Nocella, Bonsignore conserved his equipment and patiently worked his way back to the leaders, eventually carving his way to the lead at Lap 78.
The race was entirely clean and green up until Lap 129 when the yellow was displayed for possible fluid, suspected from the broken motor of Bobby Santos III. Woody Pitkat had worked his way up to second place and was gaining on Bonsignore, but a slow pit stop under caution plummeted him to 15th place for the ensuing restart.
With five laps to go, Swanson spun sideways and backward in the middle of Turn 2, involving Pitkat and Tyler Rypkema to set up the final caution of the race.
Behind Bonsignore, Coby and Emerling, Kyle Bonsignore and Craig Lutz rounded out the top five. Nocella, Rypkema, Ron Silk, Eric Goodale and Ronnie Williams completed the top 10.