Story By: KYLE SOUZA / NASCAR – DAYTONA BEACH, FL – Five months after Justin Bonsignore clinched his first NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour championship, his title defense is set to commence. Bonsignore leads a stout group of drivers into the 35th season of Whelen Modified Tour action — but he’s far from the only storyline heading into the newest campaign.
As always, a fresh list of driver and team combinations has slowly, but surely, come to the front of the discussion as the season gets ready to take the green flag at Myrtle Beach Speedway on March 16. But, there are also a list of drivers who will remain with their same team in hopes of continuing 2018 success, or steering themselves back in the right direction.
New Faces, in New Places
After a stout season in 2018, Chase Dowling has moved on from his tenure with LFR Chassis and Rob Fuller Motorsports and will be competing part-time for Jamie Tomaino in 2019. The Roxbury, Connecticut, driver picked up his first Whelen Modified Tour win in the inaugural Musket 250 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in September and finished inside the top-10 in all but three races.
He also finished in the runner-up position in the final championship standings. But, after parting ways with Fuller, Dowling landed with Tomaino in a combination that will showcase the youth talent and veteran core that the Whelen Modified Tour has to offer, all in one. Tomaino has 621 career starts over 34 years, and stands as the only driver to make at least one start in each Tour season since the beginning of the modern era in 1985. Dowling, who joins the stable of the 1990 series champion, has just 57 starts and one win — but has quickly made it clear he plans to be around a while with over 30 top-10 finishes in his short career.
It might come across as a surprise to some, but the combination of Matt Swanson and Boehler Racing could certainly be one that sparks a cinderella story rather quickly. Swanson, of Acton, Massachusetts, has 49 career Whelen Modified Tour starts across four years — but a majority of them came with his family-owned car out of the family shop.
When Rowan Pennink retired late last year, Swanson was tabbed to drive the famed “Ole Blue” No. 3 — and didn’t let the team regret making the move. Swanson finished second in his first start in the car while Pennink was celebrating the birth of his first child, but after Pennink officially hung up the helmet, Swanson competed in the final five races of the season, ending it with a seventh-place finish at Thompson’s World Series. With the team on path to jell even more when the season begins, the combination of Swanson — the youngest Sunoco Rookie of the Year in series history — and the veteran core group of the Boehler racing family — who have been around for more than four decades — it could spell glory.
Veteran Jimmy Blewett, who has run part-time in his family-owned car over the last two years, could be in position to make a run at the title again if all the stars align for him. Blewett teamed with Gershow Motorsports in February and the combination went south to New Smyrna Speedway’s 53rd annual World Series of Asphalt Stock Car Racing. Blewett finished third in the final point standings for the week, and wrapped the five nights of Modified racing with a second-place effort in the Richie Evans Memorial 100.
After some discussion internally, Blewett and the team announced via Facebook that they would be running the opener at Myrtle Beach together. If all goes well, it certainly could mean Blewett will be in the car for the season. Bertuccio’s Gershow Motorsports team competed last year with Ronnie Williams at the controls — capturing two poles and five top-10 finishes in 15 starts.
Kyle Benjamin, who has two top five finishes in eight starts in NASCAR Xfinity Series action for Joe Gibbs Racing in the past, will run a partial schedule for Rob Fuller and LFR Chassis. With Dowling leaving the team, Fuller is giving Benjamin a chance to compete in his first NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour attempts. Benjamin also has five career NASCAR K&N Pro Series East victories.
“Kyle seems to be a great kid with a ton of talent,” Fuller said in a team release. “I’m looking forward to introducing him to the Modified community and scoring some great finishes for our team and sponsors.”
Sunoco Rookie Contenders Ready To Rise
Last year it was Tommy Catalano who snagged Sunoco Rookie of the Year honors after only planning to run a few races. This year, another Catalano is hoping to keep that newfound family tradition rolling.
Timmy Catalano, Tommy’s brother, is going to chase the Rookie of the Year honors driving the family-owned No. 45 in all 17 events. With backing from his fellow family members, and advice about some of the tracks he’s never been to before coming from his brother, Timmy is hoping the new venture ends with celebration.
But he is far from the only rising star looking to make a name for himself in 2019. Sam Rameau, who moves from the tour-type Modified ranks of New England up to the Whelen Modified Tour, has some brief experience in the series. He competed in the Sunoco World Series 150 at Thompson Speedway Motorsports Park last year — getting his feet wet in the season-finale with a 17th place finish in a 33-car field. Rameau was a front-runner on the Valenti Modified Racing Series in New England last year.
“My dad raced Enduro cars and Street Stocks his whole life,” Rameau told RaceDayCT.com in February. “I never dreamed of racing an open wheeled Modified – nevermind on the Whelen Modified Tour with guys like Ryan Preece, Doug Coby, Justin Bonsignore and Timmy Solomito. Racing with these guys is a dream come true. I just can’t believe I’m doing it.”
Joey Mucciacciaro, a Super Late Model competitor in the south, also has plans to run the full NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour slate as he first reported to RaceDayCT. The team will use a chassis out of the LFR shop — a chassis department that won 11 events last year.
Welcome Mayhew Tools as Pole Award Sponsor
Mayhew Tools, a Massachusetts-based company that produces tools used around the globe, will sponsor the pole award for teams this year. Even though the driver is often recognized as the winner of the pole, the team also plays a major role in the speed of the car on the track.
This year, crew chiefs are also going to be rewarded when their driver wins the pole.
Mayhew Tools will provide the “Big Stick” to each pole-winning crew chief immediately following the conclusion of qualifying. The “Big Stick” is the largest pry bar the company has ever produced.
Just for example, Justin Bonsignore won five pole awards last year, and if he can accomplish the same goal in 2019, his crew chief Ryan Stone would have five “Big Sticks” in the shop.
South Boston, Wall Stadium Added To Schedule
NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour teams may have their fair share of the same tracks this season, but there are also two new facilities on the schedule. South Boston Speedway, a .4-mile oval in Virginia, played host to 11 NASCAR Whelen Southern Modified Tour races between 2009 and 2016. In those events, a select few drivers gained experience that might pay off for them now.
Kyle Bonsignore, who picked up his first Whelen Modified Tour win at Stafford Motor Speedway last fall, has two top five finishes in three starts at the Virginia oval. Patrick Emerling, Eric Goodale, Burt Myers and Andy Seuss are also among drivers who have prior starts at the track.
Wall Stadium, a third-mile oval in New Jersey, returns for a date on May 18. In three previous Whelen Modified Tour events there, three different drivers visited Victory Lane — including two from the Blewett family.
John Blewett III won the inaugural race in 2003, while Reggie Ruggerio broke into the winner’s circle in the second event in 2004. Jimmy Blewett, who since has titles at Wall during weekly competition, won the event in 2007. Blewett has been running Wall weekly over the last few years, so will certainly be among the top contenders when the Whelen Modified Tour enters town.
Additional Tidbits of Offseason News
FansChoice.TV announced in February they will air each and every NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour race on their website via a live stream in 2019. The events will also air on NBCSN, typically scheduled for the week following the conclusion.
After a successful first Full Throttle Weekend last September, New Hampshire Motor Speedway will again play host to the Musket 250 in 2019. The 2018 edition, which was the longest race in Whelen Modified Tour history, saw Chase Dowling edge Patrick Emerling across the line after Ryan Preece and Justin Bonsignore collided racing for the lead on the final lap.
This year, Whelen Engineering, the supporting sponsor of the Whelen Modified Tour, is taking the event to the next level, as they announced they will become the primary sponsor of the race.
Phil Kurze, a longtime executive with Whelen Engineering, passed in December following a long illness. Kurze helped to push NASCAR regional, international and local racing to extreme heights after helping to seal deals with the NASCAR Modified Tour, NASCAR Whelen Euro Series and NASCAR Whelen All-American Series. He was committed to helping put the local, short-track level of racing on a platform like never before.
Mary Hodge, a photographer who spent countless years covering the Whelen Modified Tour circuit with her late husband Howie, passed away in February. Hodge spent more than 40 years photographing races across the country.