Mike Stefanik, Doug Coby and Tony Hirschman represent the best in the history of the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour. With 18 championships between this trio of drivers, they are etched in history as the best of their respective eras.
Justin Bonsignore in 2021 joined them on an elite list. In the process, the 33-year-old from Holtsville, New York, further marked himself as the driver to beat in the current NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour era.
Bonsignore in 2021 scored his third championship in the last four years. He has won all of his titles with Ken Massa Motorsports, the team for which he has been driving since the start of his full-time tour career in 2010. Bonsignore joins those three historic names as the only drivers in tour history to have three or more championships.
“To have your name mentioned with the likes of those guys and accomplishing something that only a few guys have done in the history of the Whelen Modified Tour is special,” Bonsignore said. “I still don’t feel like I belong in that type of group with those names. I’m just really appreciative and humbled to even be part of it. Those guys accomplished a lot in our sport, had some great races and drove for really good teams.”
Bonsignore’s success on the tour can be attributed to a multitude of points, but three specific elements stand out: determination to never quit, a car owner who has become family, and a crew chief who showcases his talent to get the car to the front of the field.
All of that combined with Bonsignore’s driving talent equates to a nearly unstoppable team.
Bonsignore and Ken Massa Motorsports have been together since they both started on the tour, and it hasn’t always been green grass and bright sunshine. Over the first four years, the team only won three races.
In 2014, though, Bonsignore had somewhat of a breakout year, winning three races and finishing third in the championship battle. The team came close in both 2016 and 2017, but podium finishes in the point standings two years in a row was not the goal.
That’s why Bonsignore and Massa at the end of the 2017 season decided to take a different step — a bigger step — and try something both were confident would work.
Fast-forward to 2021, and the team’s hiring of Ryan Stone as crew chief that year still stands as the winning move Bonsignore and Massa predicted.
“Without a doubt, right from day one, when we unloaded and went right to second place on the speed charts the first time we worked together, I knew I would never have to worry or wonder about anything to do with the cars being ready or fast,” Bonsignore said. “Ryan lives all of it, 100 percent of the time. He’s at the shop countless hours and thinks about every single small detail that might not seem important to most, but keeps you in contention for wins, and the championship.
“The raw speed is a great part of having Ryan; he’s a mastermind and is always trying to come up with new ideas, the next tricks. He’s always working to get us better, and he’s never comfortable with what we have.”
For Bonsignore, his relationship with car owner Ken and his wife Janine Massa goes well beyond the track.
“They’re not quite old enough, but I say to them all the time that they are like second parents to me,” Bonsignore said. “My parents moved down south a handful of years ago, and they have taken me in as one of their own. I feel like I am their oldest son.
“When I go to Ken, whether it’s for personal, business or financial advice, he’s always there for me. He’s one of my best friends in life. He’s helped me with a business, and he’s 110 percent behind us on the track. He gives us everything we need, and he keeps our glue together.”
Over the last four years, Bonsignore’s stats on the track stack up against the best in NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour history. In 55 starts, he has 19 wins, 42 top fives, 49 top 10s and 14 Mayhew Tools Dominator Pole awards.
Even in the midst of a COVID-19 shortened year in 2020, Bonsignore won three of nine races and walked to the title. In 2021, he drove away from the pack to clinch the crown as he jumped to a tie for fifth on the all-time tour wins list.
And he is not planning on slowing down anytime soon.
“I don’t foresee my career ending soon; I’m in this for the long haul,” Bonsignore said. “I have a goal set to run races until I’m 50 years old, if I can do it. Ken seems like he would be there, but Ryan, I’m not sure if he would want to be crew chief for that long.
“As long as we stay together as a team, I don’t see why we can’t be in contention for it for many years. Ken gives us everything we need to be successful, and Ryan gives us the race cars that are fast and reliable. I know we can be in contention. Whether or not it happens with racing luck and the natural course of how things work on the track, we will see. That’s why we go out there and run the races.”
In the season finale of 2021, Bonsignore broke a streak of 40 consecutive failures to win at Stafford Motor Speedway, scoring his first victory at the Connecticut half mile and capturing the series title in the process.
“As much as I tried to block it out and not worry about it, it’s something that you thought of every single time we went there over the years,” Bonsignore said of the losing streak. “It made it even better to accomplish it in the moment and the way that we did; it was such a surreal feeling. We didn’t have to win the race, but we wanted to get it done because of everything we’ve had happen there over the years.
“I couldn’t believe we won at Stafford, and then you realize we were three-time champions. It’s pretty special. I don’t feel like I’ve fully processed the championship yet.”
The feeling of becoming champion is surreal. However, for Bonsignore, now that the celebrations are well underway, attention is already turning to an attempt to continue the streak. Bonsignore in 2022 could become just the second driver (Coby) in the series’ modern era to win three consecutive titles.
Preparation is already underway.
“It’s definitely great to see the amount of races increase,” Bonsignore said of the 2022 schedule. “I think 16 to 18 races is a really good number for our series. I know we have the Riverheads and Thompsons, but I think going to most of the tracks once a year will add diversity for drivers and teams.
“The champion can say they won at a bunch of different tracks and they were fast everywhere. It’s cool to go into different parts of the country and different tracks. A mix of those with all-out speed, some with tire conservation … it’s cool.”
Added Bonsignore on the offseason: “We’ve already been turning our cars over and getting them rebuilt and refreshed. Ryan has been going full-force with it. We’re getting somewhat ahead, and you want to have your whole team ready to go before (the season-opener at Florida’s New Smyrna Speedway).
“When we get back from Florida, you want some breathing room to prepare for the next race. Ryan is already on top of it. He’s planning on working on the newest things he needs to do to make the cars even better. I wouldn’t want to go to battle without him or any of my guys.”