Notebook: Bonsignore, Emerling look for history in Stafford field stacked with storylines

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The NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour will conclude its 2021 season this Saturday at Stafford Motor Speedway, and the main story line going into the race is the championship battle.

Justin Bonsignore leads Patrick Emerling by 16 points headed to the finale, looking to seal his third Whelen Modified Tour championship in the last four years. Emerling is looking for his first crown after 11 years of tour competition — with four career wins to his credit. Emerling is no stranger to championship glory, as a former Modified champion on the Race of Champions Tour, but this is his first shot at title glory with NASCAR.

Outside of the title battle, there are also countless other story lines to watch in the Whelen Modified Tour season-finale. The battle is on for third position on back in the championship race, while some drivers are invading the tour for the first time in their career, and others are coming back to looking to end the season in style.

RACE INFO: Race Center: Stafford | Entry List

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BREAKING IT DOWN: Bonsignore vs Emerling

Both Justin Bonsignore and Patrick Emerling have proven that they belong in this position going to the final race of the year.

Emerling is having undoubtedly the best year of his Whelen Modified Tour career, posting three victories (Stafford, Lancaster and Riverhead), while Bonsignore’s consistency is striking again.

DRIVER NAME:

Justin Bonsignore

Patrick Emerling

Career Titles

2

0

Career Wins

30

4

Career Top-Fives

95

26

Career Top-10s

126

59

Career Poles

19

3

Years of NWMT Racing

15

11

With a 16-point gap, a finish of 11th or better will clinch a third title for the Holtsville, New York, native, no matter what Emerling does. If Bonsignore leads a lap, he needs to finish 12th or better. There are multiple scenarios involved — but if the two end up tying at the top at the end of the NAPA Fall Final 150 — Emerling will win, by virtue of his multiple wins.

At Stafford specifically, both of them have led laps — but only Emerling is a winner, which occurred in the NAPA Spring Sizzler in April. Bonsignore has competed at the half-mile 40 times in Whelen Modified Tour action — and has yet to win — and his fellow competitors will be the first to give you the 0-40 stat. He has led 335 laps there, including 14 in August, before Ryan Preece passed him in the final laps to take the win, and Bonsignore was forced to his fourth runner-up finish there.

Emerling Wins Sizzler
Emerling Wins Sizzler

Either way, both of them would be deserving champions.

POINT STANDINGS ENTERING STAFFORD

For Emerling, it would be a breakout performance for the ages, and one that no one could have predicted leading into the season. For Bonsignore, it would be another step towards cementing a dynasty. He looks to become just the fourth driver in Whelen Modified Tour history to capture three or more titles. Only Mike Stefanik (seven), Doug Coby (six) and Tony Hirschman (five) are on the list. Coby’s title run in 2019 is the only thing stopping Bonsignore from chasing a fourth straight.

“We just have to go out there and race the same way we have been racing all season,” Bonsignore said in a race preview. “We have to have a maximum day — qualify well, get a good pit stall selection, and try to get out front, lead laps and control the race, then wait for the pit stop. With the different tire strategies that happen at Stafford, it makes it difficult to figure it out. This should be a lot of business as usual for us, just a bit more conscious of where we are at with the points. There is a long way to go before we can think about winning the championship — we don‘t want to be ahead of ourselves. It would be special to become a three-time series champion. Not many guys are on that list and they are all legends of the modifieds.”

Bonsignore is more experienced, and most consistent. But Emerling has more wins this year, and is primed to make a run at the gold. Only one driver can hoist the brand new series trophy, released earlier this year.

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Battle For 3-7 in Championship Race is Close

Even though Bonsignore and Emerling have run away, leading third place by more than 60 points, the race between third and seventh is closer than ever. Ron Silk is third, 68 points from the lead, while Kyle Bonsignore is fourth, just six behind Silk. It’s another nine back to Woody Pitkat, 10 to Doug Coby and 13 to Eric Goodale. Heading to Stafford, it seems all of them could be due for a solid finish.

All five drivers are previous Stafford winners, and two of them are former track champions. Pitkat is second on the all-time wins list at the track with 78, while Coby, a former track champion, has 12 career tour wins at Stafford. Pitkat hasn’t quite had the season he was hoping for in his return to full-time action — with only two top-five finishes in 13 races — but will be hoping some home cooking will get him to Victory Lane to close out the year.

When it comes to the tour season, Coby has two DNFs (Loudon & Riverhead last week), but still is sixth in the championship battle heading to the finale. In the owner’s championship race, Coby and his Doug Coby Racing team are comfortably set to lock-up third, since Chase Dowling drove the car to a top-10 at Oswego.

Silk enters his final race with Kevin Stuart Motorsports at Stafford. Set to move on to a different operation next year, Silk has won seven times since he started driving for the team in 2017 — including twice at Stafford. Kyle Bonsignore and Goodale are former winners, but have just six combined top-fives this year.

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SK Modified Points Contender To Make Tour Debut

It’s time to make the move to the big time for a successful driver, and crew chief.

Stephen Kopcik is second, only 14 points out of the lead, on the heels of five wins in 18 starts in the track’s historic SK Modified division with two races to go. His next contest will occur on Friday night, as he looks to best Todd Owen in the battle between two drivers looking for their first title.

On Saturday, Kopcik goes Whelen Modified Tour racing for the first time.

Kopcik will drive for Gershow Racing in the No. 2 Gershow Recycling entry owned by Joe Bertuccio. As a proven driver, Kopcik isn’t overly concerned about getting up to speed — especially since he has plenty of tour experience as a crew chief for NASCAR Cup Series regular Ryan Preece. The combination has already been to Victory Lane three times this year, including at Stafford in August.

Kopcik, Preece At Stafford
Kopcik, Preece At Stafford

“I don‘t want to sound cocky but my goal is to start and run in the top-10 all day,” Kopcik said in a track release. “I know it‘s not easy racing on the tour, but Stafford is my home track and I set these cars up for a living, so I want to run well and I don‘t think the top-10 is out of reach for us. Mike Bologna, the crew chief on the car, is going to give me everything I need to succeed, so it‘s very possible for us to have a good run. I think my track knowledge will benefit me more with just knowing the driving style to get around Stafford. Any driver will tell you Stafford is a unique track. You look at someone like Justin Bonsignore, he‘s a bada** on the Tour and he hasn‘t won yet at Stafford and then someone like Doug Coby, Stafford is his home track and he‘s kind of had the track in his back pocket. It‘ll be interesting for me to see how my experience matches up against those guys. I feel really confident racing at Stafford.”

Quick links:

NAPA Fall Final 150 Race Notes:

  • The Whelen Modified Tour season will conclude in Connecticut for the 22nd consecutive year, but this time, Stafford Motor Speedway will host the finale. The half-mile in Stafford Springs, Connecticut, has played a crucial role in the title battle since the inception of the series in 1985, hosting at least one race in every year except 1988.

  • C.J. Lehmann will make his first Whelen Modified Tour start since 2017, as the NASCAR Advance Auto Parts Weekly Racing Series regular at Riverhead Raceway will compete for Steve Mendoza.

  • Craig Lutz has entered the race driving a second car in the Dave Sapienza Racing stable, numbered 63. Lutz’s team, Goodie Motorsports, announced their immediate closure a few weeks ago, and he drove the Danny Watts No. 82 at Riverhead, posting a DNF due to a crash. In his last five tour starts, Lutz has all DNFs.

  • Two-time track champion Ronnie Williams is back in the No. 50 for Paul Les, set to chase the checkered flag. Williams is fresh-off a podium run at Richmond Raceway earlier in the month, and is no stranger to the half-mile.

  • Joey Cipriano, a graduate of one of Stafford’s weekly divisions, will compete in a backup car for Kevin Stuart Motorsports. Austin Beers also returns to the Whelen Modified Tour for the fourth consecutive race, driving for Mike Murphy.

  • The NAPA Fall Final 150 is part of two days of racing at Stafford, including Friday. All of the track’s weekly divisions will be in action.

Stafford Candid
Stafford Candid