With a 150 point advantage ahead of the last green flag of the season, it was Gresham Wagner’s (No. 5 Spark Performance) championship to lose as the Idemitsu Mazda MX-5 Cup presented by BFGoodrich Tires race got underway at Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta on Friday. Despite not finishing on the podium for the first time this year, Wagner still finished high enough to secure his first championship with a run to sixth at the finish. Earning his first win of the season, Jared Thomas (No. 96 JTR Motorsports Engineering) claimed the top spot on the final lap in another dramatic race finish.
Coming off of a win in Thursday’s Round 13 race, Wagner’s margin over Michael Carter (No. 08 Carter Racing Enterprises) meant that even if Carter won the race, Wagner only had to finish 11th or higher to lock in the title and the $250,000 support package from Mazda for the champion.
Wagner struggled in the race, at one point running as far back as ninth and in the middle of a tense fight for Rookie of the Year. Up at the front, Carter was fighting for the win. Wagner ultimately finished sixth, which is his worst finish of the season, but still took home the biggest prize of all.
“It’s been a long season, with everything building to this,” Wagner said. “It’s amazing to get it done, it’s almost more relief than excitement. But today, the car was just slow. Not much else to it. That was probably my worst race of the season, but I just had to get top nine and we did that, so I’m happy with that. Aside from that, it was a pretty un-fun race. I was back in the rookie pack and it seemed as though they were racing harder for sixth than a lot of the wins I’ve been a part of. It was tricky, some guys cut me slack and some didn’t, so I’m happy to bring it home.”
Carter was doing everything he could to hold off Thomas and Selin Rollan (No. 87 Hixon Motor Sports) and keep his championship hopes alive. The trio was able to pull away from the pack, except when two, short full-course yellows brought everyone in line again.
On the final lap, Carter slid in Turn Five and got some air over the exit curbing. There was no way to hold his momentum and Thomas went right past. The former Rookie of the Year took his first win of the season by 0.132-second over Rollan. It was long overdue for Thomas, who had plenty of pace but zero luck all season.
“We started the season strong, had some ups and downs mid-season, but Laguna was a step in the right direction,” Thomas said. “I love Road Atlanta – we’ve been fast in everything we’ve raced here and it was absolutely perfect today, no one could touch us. It felt like a walk-off homer. That last lap, it was a three-car breakaway and all three of us knew what was going to happen. I tried to cool off my brakes to make sure I had them the best I could and I was ready to make a move on Michael [Carter], but he made a mistake that let Selin [Rollan] and me around. It was a drag race from there, but I had the line and my brakes were there. It was great to take the checkered flag in an awesome race. The guys at the front had absolute respect for each other – we knew what was acceptable and right and we made it a great race.”
En route to victory, Thomas set a new Mazda MX-5 Cup lap record for Road Atlanta: 1m36.567s.
Rollan started from the pole and led six laps of the race while taking on Thomas and Carter. Any plans he had for the last lap to take over the lead went out the window when Carter’s car slammed over the Turn Five curbing.
“After the second restart, once we saw we were leading the pack, the plan was just to stay working together,” Rollan said. “I didn’t know if I wanted to be first or second or third. Michael going off helped me out, and I wanted to be in second, but I timed the run wrong and Jared and I made contact. Michael [Carter] might have been thinking about it (the championship) more than I was – I was just planning to pick up the pieces, if there’d been any pieces to pick up. But I’m happy to be on the podium and I’m happy Jared got the win. I’m glad to be racing with Hixon Motor Sports. I didn’t expect to be here this year, so to get four wins, and finish third in the points, it’s been a great time.”
Racing in front of family and friends at his home track, Carter was doing everything in his power to steal the championship from Wagner. He led the most laps of the race, which gave him 10 bonus points, but one small mistake cost him the race win, although ultimately even a race win would not have been enough considering Wagner’s position.
“Gresham still finished sixth so in the end it wouldn’t have mattered (to have won the race or not),” said the 2020 champion, who led 20 laps. “But yeah, I really wanted to win a race. I really like winning. I carry a chip on my shoulder and expect to win like every race. And, you know, it hurts but, I mean, I guess there’s nothing wrong with second. It’s just frustrating, you know after yesterday and then to lead all those laps today, it’s definitely frustrating, but you know, Gresham [Wagner] had a great season and he deserves it. He really does. I felt like we still ran a great season but there were some things out of our control, and those things add up over the season and they ended up really biting us. I had my opportunities, but I just wonder ‘what if all that stuff didn’t happen?”
The championship wasn’t the only title on the line; Rookie of the Year honors came down to a close matchup between Sam Paley (No. 28 McCumbee McAleer Motorsports) and Chris Nunes (No. 32 JTR Motorsports Engineering). Both were part of a pack of cars running fourth through ninth. The order shuffled in every turn with intense door-to-door driving. Nunes finished seventh to Paley’s ninth, but it wasn’t enough to overcome the point lead Paley had built. Paley earned rookie honors by 40 points.
“It was definitely a crazy race,” Paley said. “I felt like a lot of people were out to get me. The main goal was just to finish in a decent spot because I knew I had the rookie championship sealed up. I was giving everyone a lot of room, being cautious and trying to bring it home. It means a lot to win the rookie title – the team and I have been through a lot of adversity this year, a lot of different issues. And of course, this helps me financially next season, so hopefully I can come back and win the championship. It’s a big relief and I’m really happy.” Finishing fourth, another rookie, Luca Mars (No. 41 Copeland Motorsports) earned the Hard Charger Award for advancing five positions in the 45-minute race.
In only his second MX-5 Cup race, Connor Zilisch (No. 72 Hixon Motor Sports), the most recent MX-5 Cup Shootout winner, finished fifth.
All of the 2021 Mazda MX-5 Cup awards will be handed out at Friday evening’s championship celebration, including the $250,000 grand prize for Wagner and $80,000 for Paley’s rookie title.
Rounds 13 and 14 from Road Atlanta will air on NBCSN, Tuesday, November 23, at 3 p.m. ET.
The 2022 Idemitsu Mazda MX-5 Cup season opener is just around the corner, January 27 – 30 at Daytona International Speedway.