Few tracks on the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour circuit provide the prime opportunity for a driver to utilize their home track advantage.
But, Riverhead Raceway, a quarter-mile on Long Island in New York, gives some of the local experience a chance to shine. The track runs their own weekly modified class as part of the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series — and it is a division that has produced plenty of successful modified competitors in the past.
Saturday, the Whelen Modified Tour hits the bullring for the Buzz Chew Auto Group 200.
In the midst of the 200-lap fight for the checkered flag, the race for the championship will heat up as the series closes in on the halfway point. With three wins in the first six races, Justin Bonsignore holds a 23-point advantage over Chase Dowling, and has put himself in prime position as the early-season favorite to become champion. Bonsignore has deep racing roots from Long Island, and will look for his fifth career victory at the quarter-mile. In his last six starts, the Holtsville, New York, driver has all top five finishes, including three victories.
Hot on his tail, Islip, New York, native Timmy Solomito is looking to steer this No. 16 Starrett Tools Ford back into the winner’s circle, and enters the race as one of the odds-on favorites. Solomito is also a former Riverhead regular, and he swept both Whelen Modified Tour races last year. In his last four Riverhead efforts, he has three wins and a second-place finish.
But, like Bonsignore and Solomito, there are plenty of other drivers in the field who have racing roots that started right at the quarter-mile. In fact, since the start of the 2016 season, only four drivers have been to Victory Lane on the Whelen Modified Tour if their racing roots don’t come from Long Island or Connecticut.
Drivers with racing background from New York (specifically Riverhead) have been to Victory Lane 18 times in that span, while Connecticut natives follow closely, winning 15 times. Much like New York, Connecticut puts on some modified racing weekly, specifically at Stafford Motor Speedway and Thompson Speedway Motorsports Park in the SK Modified divisions. The four drivers to be victorious in that time that are not from those two states include Jimmy Blewett (New Jersey), Bobby Santos (Massachusetts) and Jon McKennedy (Massachusetts).
Sapienza Primed To Seal The Deal
Dave Sapienza, a native of Riverhead, heads to the race looking to capture his first career Whelen Modified Tour win. And if past history means anything, Sapienza could be among the favorites to win the seventh race of the Whelen Modified Tour season.
He has plenty of Riverhead experience under his belt in their NASCAR Modified class, and his statistics in Whelen Modified Tour action show he is going to be a threat. Even though he only has two top five finishes in six starts, last year, in the July race at Riverhead, Sapienza started 11th, and climbed through the field to finish second.
“Last year we had a good run, but unexpectedly, we had a new car there, and it was the debut with it,” Sapienza said. “Tommy (Grasso, crew chief) was a little bit familiar with it, but when we went to Riverhead, I was there at the end of the race, going for the win. I didn’t expect to be running second. I was almost in a fog.”
RACING-REFERENCE: Dave Sapienza’s Career Starts at Riverhead
Since that race, Sapienza seems to be starting to find his mojo on the track. He finished last season with a total of seven top 10 finishes, and he has been showing strong speed out of the gate in 2018 — scoring a best finish of fifth so far in the Thompson 125 at Thompson Speedway Motorsports Park in June.
“Sometimes you strive forward, but then you have a setback, but as long as it isn’t my fault, I just can’t control it,” Sapienza said. “Like when there was oil on the race track (at Langley) and we got caught up in it, we had a good car for the distance of that race, but things happen.”
He is one of the drivers with the luxury of having a lot of laps around Riverhead in his past.
“But it’s a tough place,” Sapienza said. “I’m going into there with a full head of steam. I have the advantage because I have some laps there, but the track has changed some, and we are running on a little bit different tire than I did with the weekly division — I have some confidence because I really know how to get around the place.”
“You’re not really trying to win the race on the first 50, or even 100 laps, you just want to get some good track position and you hope that you have good luck. You want to try and start up towards the front,” Sapienza said of the 200-lap distance. “When we started 11th last year, I always thought about what would have happened if I started in the front. Sometimes I need that rabbit that I need to chase though. Sometimes being on the pole can get you nervous. I like to have to work my way to the front.”
Time For Lutz To Make His Move
The first six races of the season have also shown plenty of promise for Craig Lutz and his Goodie Motorsports team. He is fourth in the championship standings, and has finished inside the top 10 in every race except last time on track at Langley, where the motor expired while he was running inside the top five.
“It’s been an awesome start for us, we did a total 180 on the program from what we started with last year to what we have right now and everything is going in the right direction,” Lutz said. “We have to just keep plugging away, and hopefully end up in Victory Lane.”
“We have struggled a lit bit on the short run speed, and it makes it tough starting the race, because we are a little bit further back than we want to be. We have been putting a really good car together for the race, and in the end, that is all that really matters.”
His Riverhead experience includes competition in the NASCAR Modified class, but only on a limited basis. As he heads back to Long Island looking to score his first career Whelen Modified Tour win, Lutz finds himself headed to a short-track, one of the places he enjoys going to the most.
“I’ve run probably six to eight races there total in a modified, but I ran go-karts there when I was young, and I did that for years and years,” Lutz said. “I like most all of the tracks that we go to, but the short-tracks put it in the drivers hands, and makes you have a good setup for the long run. With no pit stops, it makes it more challenging to make sure that the car is going to be there at the end (of the race).”
Lutz mentions that there will be no pit stops on Saturday, and even though drivers will technically have the opportunity to visit pit lane for adjustments, they will likely lose at least one lap doing it. Pit road at Riverhead is not in the middle of the track like most others, which forces you to exit the racing asphalt, and it makes it nearly impossible to stay on the lead lap.
“I know that my crew chief is going to prepare a good car, we will roll off the trailer pretty close, and just work on the car for the long run. It’s a tough deal to be able to make the car be right, and you have to make an educated guess on what you might need for the feature,” Lutz said. “Riverhead is like nothing else. If you can get the car going good, you just hope it can be there at the end of it.”
Whelen Modified Tour News & Notes:
Time To Turnaround: Five-time NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour champion Doug Coby is off to another tough start this season, and if he hopes to capture a fifth straight championship, he must look to turn things around quickly. The Milford, Connecticut, driver is more than 70 points from the top of the standings, and although he put an impressive summer stretch together last season to crawl back in the title chase, his 2018 uphill climb begins at a track he hasn’t seen any winning success. In 15 career starts at the quarter-mile Riverhead bullring, Coby has just five top fives and has yet to visit Victory Lane. However, he has finished on the podium and led 41 total laps in his last two starts at the New York oval.
Riverhead Regulars Storm In: In eight career starts at Riverhead, Tom Rogers, Jr., has just one top five, but has put together plenty of strong qualifying efforts. He has been the polesitter three times, and has qualified inside the top 10 in all of his starts. Saturday, Rogers will drive the No. 82 Horton Avenue Materials Chevrolet for Danny Watts. He currently sits second in the track’s modified point standings, and the only man in front of Rogers — Kyle Soper — has also entered for the 200-lap feature. In two starts in Whelen Modified Tour competition at the quarter-mile, Soper has a best finish of third that came last September. Both drivers finished 1-2 in the most recent weekly race, with Soper winning, followed by Rogers.
Pleasant Surprise: There are two young drivers on the entry list for Saturday’s Buzz Chew Chevrolet Cadillac 200 at Riverhead that are certainly worth watching. Kyle Ellwood, who is in the field, qualified sixth and finished eighth in September. Blake Barney, an 18-year-old from Jackson, New Jersey, scored his first top 10 finish at Langley, and his heading to a bullring with plenty of confidence on his side.
Whelen All-American Series: The Whelen Modified Tour is just one of multiple divisions scheduled to compete on Saturday night. The Crate Modifieds, Blunderbusts and Street Stocks will all compete in feature action as part of the Whelen All-American Series night of racing.
Up Next: The NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour will move from New York to New Hampshire for the eighth race of the season, which will mark the halfway point. The Eastern Propane & Oil 100 on Saturday, July 21, will be preceded by the Whelen Engineering All-Star Shootout on Friday, July 20, a non-points special.