Paul Rutherford
Paul Rutherford

Justin Bonsignore takes over points lead halfway through Whelen Modified Tour title fight

LOUDON, N.H. — Justin Bonsignore and Patrick Emerling are halfway through a title fight in the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour.

Bonsignore, the tour’s defending champion in addition to his 2018 title, jumped into the points lead for the first time this season following a second-place finish at New Hampshire Motor Speedway last Saturday.

RELATED: Thrilling finish at New Hampshire | Whelen Modified Tour standings

Emerling had led the standings since race No. 3 on May 15 with a runner-up finish at Riverhead Raceway on the heels of a win at Stafford Motor Speedway two weeks prior. But an uncharacteristically poor performance at Loudon saw Emerling finish 13th, the last car on the lead lap after being lapped by Bonsignore earlier in the contest.

So as New Hampshire marked the separation of the first half and the second half of 2021’s tour schedule, it also separated Bonsignore and Emerling from the rest of the field, as third-place driver Kyle Bonsignore now sits 48 points back of his cousin for the points lead and 38 back of Emerling.

Justin Bonsignore said prior to Saturday’s race he wasn’t thinking about points — that the only thing that mattered in New Hampshire was winning the tour’s version of the Daytona 500.

But with how solidly he ran, leading 63 of 105 laps en route to a runner-up finish, Bonsignore knew how productive New Hampshire was for him and his team as he hunts a third championship, which would be halfway to Doug Coby’s six pack.

“Any year you can have a shot at it is special,” Bonsignore said. “This series is really hard. Doug made it look easy for a long time and it’s not. It is a really tough series to be a part of and to win in and we’ve got a great team. We could have won maybe four or five races this year and we’ve got one. That’s just how this series is.

Coby began 2021 eyeing a run for a seventh modified title, but that plan took a step back on Saturday. Despite missing the race at Oswego, Coby came into New Hampshire tied for fourth in points just 41 points behind. But an engine issue ended Coby’s race at lap 44, relegating him to a 27th-place finish and now sitting ninth in the standings 68 points behind the leaders.

“It probably kills it,” Coby said of his championship hopes. “We’re really solid. The 51 (Bonsignore) and their mistakes turn into eighth-place finishes when they screw up, if that. Sometimes, their mistakes turn into fifth-place finishes. We didn’t need a day like this where certainly we almost gave them another race.

“We’ve finished 27th and they go out and finish second, lead the most laps and get all sorts of bonus points and stuff. The reality is in a 14-race season, you can’t give somebody two.”

Emerling said New Hampshire tends to be his best track, and with six top fives — the most he’s accumulated at any track — the numbers back that up. But a tight car and issues refueling on Saturday gave Emerling enough trouble to cost him the points lead.

“He (Bonsignore) always brings his A-game everywhere he goes,” Emerling said. “He had an amazing car today. We just have to just put our heads down and get a little bit more speed out of our cars.”

Now begins the second half of the season, kicking off at New York International Raceway Park in Lancaster, New York, on July 31, a new venue on the tour schedule.

RELATED: Whelen Modified Tour schedule

Bonsignore, who works as the general manager of a fiber optics company to pay his bills when he’s not behind the wheel, knows there’s a long way between now and Sept. 25 when the champion will be crowned at Stafford. But Loudon was a good measuring stick for where he and his team are functioning, he said.

“Before this weekend, I needed to see some speed,” said Bonsignore. “This car is a new car this year, and for the first time this year, this car really had a lot of speed all day long. It was really, really well balanced. Every track we’re gonna go to is a little different, but there’s a lot of flat tracks [with the] same similar setup we’re gonna run a lot of places. So hopefully this was a big step. Hopefully we learned some stuff, [have] some momentum on our side and just gonna keep our head down.

“Long way to go before we have to worry about the points, but you’re always conscious of it, I’ve learned throughout these battles.”

Emerling, meanwhile, is vying for his first championship on the tour. Just 10 points out, he knows he’s got a fighting chance but needs to keep giving Bonsignore strong fights if he wants to come out on top.

“We’re just gonna put our heads down and bring our A-game,” Emerling said. “We’re coming off of a win there (at Stafford), so now we think we’ll be pretty good there.”

The tour takes its next green flag on July 31 at New York International Raceway Park at 8 p.m. ET and can be streamed live via TrackPass on NBC Sports Gold.