Even for a series that has been recognized for delivering some of the best racing on the continent, Thursday’s Idemitsu Mazda MX-5 Cup presented by BFGoodrich Tires race delivered an extra measure of excitement as the top five finishers all crossed the line within 0.311-seconds of the winner.
After the 45-minute race ran under green flag conditions from start to finish, Gresham Wagner (No. 5 Spark Performance) earned his fifth win of the season by just 0.015-second over Jared Thomas (No. 96 JTR Performance Engineering). Michael Carter (No. 08 Carter Racing Enterprises) was right with them and finished third to keep his championship hopes alive.
Wagner came into the finale with a comfortable, but not insurmountable, lead in the point standings. Halfway through the race at Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta, it looked like he could say goodbye to that cushion. The battle at the front was tight and while racing door-to-door with another driver, Wagner ran out of room in Turn One and fell as far back as 11th.
“I knew Selin [Rollan] and Michael [Carter] were going to race me hard – they had to, because of the deficit in points, they had to beat me,” Wagner said. “I knew they’d tried to shuffle me back and they did what they needed to do. It wasn’t looking great for me midway through that race, but I knew I had a fast car. I could see where I was faster than the cars around so if I could put in some clean laps, I could be up there in the lead battle.”
Meanwhile, Wagner’s main rivals for the championship, Carter and Selin Rollan (No. 87 Hixon Motor Sports) were trading the lead at the front of the field along with rookie Sam Paley (No. 28 McCumbee McAleer Racing). It took about 20 minutes for Wagner to catch the lead pack again. When Rollan and Paley nearly raced each other off the track, Wagner was able to rejoin the podium fight.
Carter led Rollan and Thomas across the line to start the final lap. As the trio fought for the race win, Wagner, in fourth, saw his opportunity in the final turn, dove to the inside and went three -wide through the apex with Carter and Thomas. Wagner’s car got loose on the exit, but he managed to take the checkered flag 0.015s ahead of Thomas.
“It was nerve-wracking to get shuffled back a bit with two laps to go, and I really had to claw back to put myself into a winning position coming to the last few corners, but luckily the guys in front raced each other just a little too hard and let me get a nose in there,” said Wagner. “I took advantage of a situation that just kind of fell to me.”
It is Wagner’s fifth win of the season and third in-a-row. The victory increases his point lead to 150 points over Carter. He will start second in Friday’s season-ending race and he’s hoping it will be a little calmer.
“I feel good about the win, but not after such a roller coaster, when so much could have gone wrong,” Wagner said. “Hopefully the next one is smoother sailing!”
Thomas returned to the Mazda MX-5 Cup podium for the first time since the season opener at Daytona International Speedway.
“I got the run on Selin [Rollan] in One and started catching [Michael] Carter down the back stretch and then pulled out and we fought side-by-side through 10a and that gave Gresham [Wagner] the run,” Thomas said. “Coming to the last corner, I thought ‘three wide, in Turn 12, at Road Atlanta, in the second to last race for the championship?!’ I was just hoping to not be the odd man out there so I’m really happy to get back on the podium. It’s been a while and feels really good. Tomorrow we are starting a bit better so we’ll come back and go for it again.”
Carter lamented his sudden change in fortune toward the end of the race. He finished third, but he did pick up 10 bonus points for leading the most laps in the race.
“That last lap, I thought I had it won coming out of Turn One,” Carter said. “I had a pretty good gap, but they snuck back up to me. Jared was pushing me down the whole front straightaway and I thought he might stick with me, but he didn’t. The car was fast, but sometimes these things go your way and sometimes they don’t. You always want to win, but it was a good race. It’s a pretty beat-up car, so we’ll go see what we have to fix tonight, come back to win tomorrow and see how the championship shakes out. It’s still in reach, and anything can happen. Thanks to the team, we had a long night last night with some broken stuff, so it’s been a long 24 hours. Third today and we’ll go get ‘em tomorrow.”
Chris Nunes (No. 32 JTR Motorsports Engineering) finished fourth and was named Hard Charger for picking up six positions during the race. This tightens up the Rookie of the Year standings. Paley’s 150-point lead over Nunes has shrunk to 80 points as he finished ninth.
Rollan completed the top five but will start from pole for Friday’s race. He remains third in the point standings, 250 points out of first.
Making his Mazda MX-5 Cup debut, the most recent Mazda Shootout winner Connor Zilisch (No. 72 Hixon Motor Sports) showed impressive form. The 14-year old was in contention for a podium spot before he got sideways and spun into the Turn Five tire wall. The crash damage was too extensive for Zilisch to carry on, but he can hold his head high knowing he turned the fastest lap of the race, a new MX-5 Cup record, at 1:36.622.
When the green flag flies on Friday’s race, a $250,000 championship prize will be at stake as well as an $80,000 award for Rookie of the Year.