Story By: JASON CHRISTLEY / NASCAR – CHARLOTTE, NC – Winless streaks, long layoffs and uncertain plans was how the seven drivers that gathered on stage at the end of the evening Friday entered the 2018 season.
The culmination was vastly different. They were NASCAR Champions.
“Today is my favorite victory of the year – to celebrate your accomplishments,” Philip Morris told his crew after accepting the trophy and ring for his record-tying fifth NASCAR Whelen All-American Series Division I national championship.
Morris was joined by Alon Day (NASCAR Whelen Euro Series), LP Dumoulin (NASCAR Pinty’s Series), Ruben Garcia Jr. (NASCAR PEAK Mexico Series), Justin Bonsignore (NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour), Derek Thorn (NASCAR K&N Pro Series West), and Tyler Ankrum (NASCAR K&N Pro Series East) on stage in the Grand Ballroom of the Charlotte Convention Center at the NASCAR Hall of Fame as the culminated their championship seasons with the NASCAR Awards Charlotte.
“As you can see, racing in NASCAR is alive and well,” said Vice Chairman of NASCAR Mike Helton, “and the future of it is going to be pretty spectacular.”
They shared common themes: Dominance (Bonsingore had eight wins and Day seven), repeat performances (in addition to Morris, Dumoulin, Thorn, Day and Garcia won their second titles) and championship teams that helped carry their drivers to the sport’s ultimate heights.
“This year was probably the hardest of my racing career,” said Day. “Winning back-to-back champ is a huge accomplishment in any sport, and I couldn’t make it happen without all the people that helped me.”
“This trophy, this ring, would be worthless without all that competition,” Dumoulin said, in a nod to his fellow series drivers. “It’s a lot of challenge, a lot of fun.”
Bonsignore entered the season off a bitter end to 2017 that saw him come up just short to five-time tour champion Doug Coby. But an offseason to regroup and refocus paid off, and the 30-year-old from Holtsville, New York, produced a season to remember.
“(Car owner) Ken (Massa) and I, we didn’t give up on each other. We just went to work,” said Bonsignore, who won half the tour races in 2018 and finished in the top five in all by four. “That’s all you can do as a race car driver, be the best on who you’re racing against.
“That’s what it’s all about – having fun at this level. And we def have a lot of fun.”
The two K&N Pro Series champions entered the year with different goals. Thorn, the 2013 West champion, reunited with longtime series car owner Bob Bruncati in an effort to unseat Bill McAnally Racing from the top spot. Ankrum? He wasn’t even sure of his racing plans past April.
“At the beginning of the year, I said I was happy with a top 5 – I wasn’t expecting much,” said Ankrum, who initially only planned to run a couple K&N races and some Late Model races.
The 17-year-old from San Bernardino, California, had three straight top fives to start the year and take the points lead. That led to a change and a full season slate lined up. He responded with four wins and became just the fifth driver to win the series’ title and Sunoco Rookie of the Year in the same season.
“The thing I learn the most was the value of hard work – how hard you had to work,” said Ankrum.
And Thorn made good on his goal, too. In his first full season since his title run, Thorn won three times and had 13 top fives in 14 starts as Bruncati’s Sunrise Racing went 1-2 in the championship points standings.
Dumoulin hadn’t been to Victory Lane since 2013. He ended that drought in the NASCAR Pinty’s Series opener at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park and won twice more en route to his second Canadian stock car championship.
“We do this for winning,” said Dumoulin. “We started the season that way, and it was perfect for my team.”
Garcia had an impressive year in two countries: He finished third in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East championship standings and became just the third Mexico-born driver to win an oval race in the series, and he used a three-race win streak in the summer to pull away for his second NASCAR PEAK Mexico Series title.
The most experienced of them all, Morris, also overcame a layoff from his winning ways. The 53-year-old from Ruckersville, Virginia, went into semi-retirement after his fourth NASCAR Whelen All-American Series Division I national title in 2011. He came back to full-time competition in 2016, and resumed his spot at the top just two years later on the strength of 23 wins in 35 Late Model Stock Car starts.
He tied the late Larry Phillips, a NASCAR Hall of Fame nominee, for the most titles in series’ history.
Together with Day, Garcia, Dumoulin, Bonsignore, Thorn and Ankrum, they were able to celebrate their hard-won success Friday night. And finally reflect on a season of triumph.
“It’s a humbling experience like no other,” said Thorn.
- Friday night’s NASCAR Awards Charlotte also recognized the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series Division II through V top five finishers, the U.S. state and Canadian provincial champions, as well as the championship car owners and crew chiefs, and series’ rookie of the year winners. Brittney Zamora, a Super Late Model driver from Washington’s Evergreen Speedway, received the Wendell Scott Trailblazer Award.
- On the red carpet before the NASCAR Awards Charlotte show, NASCAR Whelen All-American Series U.S. state and Canadian provincial and track rookies of the year, as well as regional and international series special award winners were recognized for their achievements.