RPW Column: The Champ Trail: It All Came Down To Stafford’s Fall Final For The NASCAR Mod Title

Column Compiled By: PHIL SMITH / RPW – WESTERLY, RI – Going into the Whelen Modified Tour season ending event, last weeks Fall Final at Stafford, Justin Bonsignore held a 16 point edge over Patrick Emerling.

Ron Silk sat third, some 68 points back. Kyle Bonsignore had moved into fourth spot and was 74 points down while Woody Pitkat rounded out the top five, 77 points down from the leader.

Doug Coby had slipped to sixth and Jon McKennedy, who missed Riverhead to compete in the SuperModified Classic at Star Speedway which he won, slipped to eighth while Eric Goodale had moved into seventh. The top 15 spots pay point money.

Melissa Fifield had moved into 15th spot, leading Ryan Preece by five points and Craig Lutz by 17 points. As luck would have it, Lutz teamed up with Dave Sapienza to compete in the Fall Final.

Heavy rain dumped over an inch of rain on the Stafford Speedway on Friday afternoon. By race time the rain had stopped, the track dried and the Friday night racing program went off as planned.

In what had to be one of the most exciting finishes in SK Modified racing ever at Stafford, Stephen Kopcik made a last lap, last corner pass of Todd Owen and Keith Rocco to make it four wins in a row. In a green-white-checkered finish, Owen and Rocco ran wheel to wheel until the final lap when Owen inched ahead. Going into turn three Rocco executed a bottom shot under Owen which ultimately moved both up a lane as they were in turn four. Kopcik took advantage of the situation and went under both to take the lead as the starter waved the checkered flag. Owen recovered to finish second. Jonathon Puleo, Rocco, and David Arute rounded out the top-5. In a post race interview Owen expressed his displeasure with Rocco’s driving. Rocco felt he did nothing wrong as he never left the racing surface when he did the bottom shot.

Following the post-race inspection of the Friday, September 24, 2021 SK Modified® feature Owen’s scowl turned to a smile when he learned the winner and third place finisher were disqualified. Stephen Kopcik and Jon Puleo due to not meeting rule 20E – 12.3 Coil Over Shocks.

Keith Rocco was elevated to the second spot, David Arute to third, Mike Christopher Jr to fourth and Noah Korner to fifth.

In other Friday night action, Al Saunders was a first time 2021 winner in the Late Model feature, Brian Sullivan took down his fourth win of 2021 in the SK Light feature, Alexandra Fearn came home a winner for the 7th time in the Limited Late Model feature, and Bert Ouellette was a career first time winner in the Street Stock feature.

In the Whelen Modified Tour season ending Fall Final Justin Bonsignore ended a long dry spell at Stafford as he won the 150 lap contest and wrapped up the season championship. Starting on the outside pole Bonsignore chased pole sitter Anthony Nocella for 77 laps before taking the lead in the event that almost went non-stop. Two cautions slowed the event. The first won flew on lap 128 for liquid in turn three and the second one on lap 146 when Matt Swanson spun in turn two. Doug Coby led briefly following the final caution. In a race ending green-white-checker situation Bonsignore shot by Coby to secure the win. Coby ended up second. Patrick Emerling who was in contention for the title came from a 14th starting spot to finish third. His bid for the title fell short by 22 points.

Anthony Nocella took the early race lead from pole position while Justin Bonsignore slid from second at the start back to fifth place as Jon McKennedy took second, Doug Coby third, and Craig Lutz fourth. With 20 laps complete, the top-3 remained the same while Bonsignore worked his way around Lutz to take over fourth place and drop Lutz back to fifth.

By lap-35 Coby was starting to apply heavy pressure to McKennedy in a fight for second place. Coby took several looks to the inside of McKennedy, but McKennedy was able to hold Coby off and maintain second place. Coby was finally able to make a passing move on McKennedy on lap-54 to move into second as Nocella continued to lead the race. Bonsignore followed Coby past McKennedy to move into third place and drop McKennedy back to fourth with Woody Pitkat now in fifth just behind McKennedy.

Eric Goodale got by McKennedy to take over fifth place on lap-64, several laps after Pitkat had taken fourth from McKennedy as Nocella was still in the lead, but he now had Coby and Bonsignore right behind him in a 3-car train for the lead.

Bonsignore worked his way to the inside of Coby for second lnlap-69 but a lapped car prevented him from completing the pass. Bonsignore again got to the inside of Coby on lap-70 and this time he was able to complete the pass for second. Pitkat and Goodale were both closing in on the lead trio to make it a 5-way fight for the race lead. Bonsignore was now applying heavy pressure to Nocella on lap-74 and he was able to make a pass to take the lead from Nocella on lap-78. Pitkat took third from Coby on lap-79 with Goodale still in fifth.

With 90 laps complete the running order was Bonsignore followed by Pitkat, Coby, Lutz, and Goodale. Rounding out the top-10 was Nocella, Ronnie Silk, Matt Swanson, Joey Cipriano, and Ronnie Williams.

The first caution flew on lap-130 for debris on the track with Bonsignore still in the lead with Pitkat, Coby, Lutz, and Goodale making up the top-5. Bonsignore led the field on to pit road on lap-132 and he won the race off of pit road followed by Swanson, Coby, Goodale, Pitkat, Lutz, Patrick Emerling, Williams, Kyle Bonsignore, and Tyler Rypkema.

The race went back to green on lap-137 with Bonsignore taking the lead followed by Coby and Swanson. Nocella was back up to fourth and Emerling was fifth. Nocella went by Swanson on lap-138 to take third and Emerling followed him through to take fourth and drop Swanson back to fifth. Swanson spun in turn 2 with several other cars collected on lap-146 to bring the caution back out and set up a green white checkered finish.

The lap-151 restart saw Coby briefly edge in front for the lead but Bonsignore was back in the lead to take the white flag. Bonsignore led Coby to the checkered flag to end an 0 for 40 streak at Stafford and clinch the 2021 Whelen Modified Tour championship in grand style. Emerling finished third with Kyle Bonsignore and Lutz rounding out the top-5.

It was an extremely gratifying day for Craig Lutz who raced his way into fifth spot which placed him 15th in the final standings. Melissa Fifield placed 26th, last in the final rundown. Fifteenth is the last spot that pays point money.

Following the Championship awards banquet this fall the Whelen Modified Tour Series will begin their 2022 season at the New Smyrna Speedway in Florida in February.

In other Saturday afternoon action at Stafford, the SK Lights, Limited Late Models, and Vintage All-Stars were in feature action. Derek Debbis scored his 7th win of the 2021 season in the SK Light feature, Mike Hopkins took down his second win of the 2021 season in the Limited Late Model feature, and Ben Levangie won the Vintage All-Stars feature with a last lap pass.

At the New London-Waterford Speedbowl the Modifieds were off.

What started as a long night for Jacob Burns ended with his biggest payday. After being involved in a lap 3 accident and being forced to make two pit stops for repairs, Burns came back stronger than ever.He thundered his way through the field and then made a daring three-wide move to take the lead with five laps to go.Then he was forced to hold off four-time champ Jason Palmer and current point leader John O’Sullivan to win the 35-lap Fall Legends Classic and the $2,500 first-place check that went with it to highlight Saturday’s action at the New London-Waterford Speedbowl.

In other racing, Jason Palmer chalked up his ninth Late Model win of the year, Charles Canfield rolled to his second Mini Stock win, Ken Cassidy won for the fifth time in the Speedbowl Trucks, Ed Ryan and Devin Tate took Super-X car wins and Milania Shilosky collected an impressive win in the Bandoleros. Bo Norman, the apparent Street Sock winner, was disqualified after the race, giving the win to Jason Chicolas.

Congratulations to Andy Jankowiak on his victory in the 71st Race of Champions at the Lake Erie Speedway. Pre-race favorite Matt Hirschman encountered motor problems and retired on lap182 of the 250 lap event. A big shout out to Mike Christopher Jr who finished second in the Tommy Baldwin 7NY. Patrick Emerling finished third, Zane Zeiner, fourth and Daryl Lewis rounded out the top five.

Tri Track Open Modified Series officials announced that the series will be adjusting starting lineup procedures for qualifying heats beginning with the final event of the season at Seekonk Speedway on October 23. Tri Track will eliminate the blind draw that drivers have been doing to set the lineup — and instead will base qualifying starting spots off a final scuff session that will occur on race day. In between practice and heat races, all cars will be required to go over the scales in the reserve order of practice speeds, with the slowest cars first. This means that all cars must be heat race legal — including having their heat race tires marked, and on the car. Following this final scuff session, cars will have to run that same set of tires in the heat races.

Teams will be grouped by practice speed and sent out on the track during the scuff session in groups of five. They will then be part of a four-lap green flag session, with the fastest individual lap time from the four-lap session for each car determining the heat race lineup. Once the lineups are set, the top-four from each heat will be inverted to make the starting grid.

Exact breakdowns are dependent on the number of cars entered to race. The below document will provide specifics.

“We’re making this adjustment in an effort to remove the element of luck involved with the blind draws we have been doing,” Ed Bennett, Managing Partner of the Tri Track Open Modified Series, said. “We’re looking forward to seeing how this change works out and we think it will be beneficial for all involved.”. Bennett’s intentions are good but very confusing. After the heat races are lined up and complete, consi race lineups will be straight-up off the heat finishes, as usual. The feature lineup will be inverted. Just before the start of the race, a wheel will be spun at the start/finish line to determine the number of cars that will be inverted for the start of the race. The number will range from zero through 12. It could be a straight-up start, a 12-car invert, or anything in between. Why not go to a Money won last three times out. Those who were not there in prior events go in the rear.

August 28, 1971 Bob Melnick scored his only win at Stafford as he out dueled Moose Hewitt. Melnick, a member of the imfamous Gasoline Alley Gang from Needham, Mass.,became the seventh driver in the previous eight races to win at Stafford, Melnick took the lead from early leader Bobby Vee going into turn three on the second lap. Three cautions slowed the event. Freddie Schulz, in the Joe Brady No.41 found himself in the wall on lap seven. On the restart Tony Russo and Ed Yerrington tangled on the backstretch. After one more try the field got the green from Frank Sgambato and went non-stop from there. Gene Bergin lost oil pressure in the engine of the Bob Judkins 2x and drove the Armstrong No.1 to a third place finish. Rene Charland, finished fourth in the Bob Johnson No.17 with Fred DeSarro, fifth. Bob Santos, Ray Miller, Leo Cleary, Bernie Miller and Ernie Gahan followed. Gary Ryan won the All American Sportsman feature and Bob Wright Sr. took top honors in the Mini-Midgets.It was Seymour the Clowns’ birthday and Rene Charland presented him with a cream pie, right in the kisser. It was also announced that Pete Zanardi, then a sportswriter for the now defunct Hartford Times had been named as the first New England member of the Pure Oil Panel of Experts.

Read all about it in the all-new book, The Modified Years At Stafford, by the Grace of God and 600 hp, which is gaining interest and has become a must have in race fans and competitors library. Race by Race, Year by Year, it’s all there. Read all about it! Books are now available on Amazon.com and Coastal 181 (877-907-8181 toll free) and are available thru Stafford’s web site in their store. Order yours now. Makes a great gift!

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