Teams in the Idemitsu Mazda MX-5 Cup presented by BFGoodrich Tires had to contend with a wet Daytona International Raceway to kick off the 2022 season. In typical MX-5 Cup fashion, the 45-minute race came down to a four-wide, door-to-door sprint to the finish line. That sprint was won by Tyler Gonzalez (No. 51 Copeland Motorsports).
The first Mazda MX-5 Cup race of the season was an exercise in car control. Rain and cold temperatures made for a very slick race track, and the 31 cars created a haze of spray as they took the green flag.
Sam Paley (No. 28 McCumbee McAleer Racing) started from the pole, but as the field fanned out into Turn 1, he fell behind in the shuffle of cars searching for grip. Instead it was third-starting Connor Zilisch (No. 72 Hixon Motor Sports) and outside polesitter Selin Rollan (No. 87 Hixon Motor Sports) who charged into the lead.
Gonzalez had a great start, from 12th on the grid to third by lap three and would not let Zilisch and Rollan get away. While that trio battled for position, MX-5 Cup regulars Michael Carter (No. 08 Carter Racing Enterprises) and Jared Thomas (No. 96 JTR Motorsports Engineering) were ready to pounce, as was Chris Nunes (No. 32 Formidable Racing), who is in his second year of MX-5 Cup Competition.
The lead pack of six changed order at seemingly every turn as someone would slide wide or misjudge the braking zone. The action was paused mid-way through the race with a four-lap full-course yellow.
Defending champion Gresham Wagner arrived on the scene after the restart and took the lead briefly, but was issued a drive-through penalty for incident responsibility, dropping him out of the fight for the win.
Rollan retook the lead, but in a similar scenario to last year’s season-opener, he had a big target on his back coming out of the final turn. Behind him, Gonzalez, Zilisch and Nunes finally fanned out at the very last minute and the quartet crossed the finish line door-to-door.
The timing screens declared Gonzalez the winner by 0.062s over Nunes. Rollan crossed the line 0.002s behind Nunes. Zilisch was a further 0.06s adrift in fourth.
“I raced MX-5 Cup a little while ago in 2019 and this is my first year back,” Gonzalez said. “My boys at Copeland Motorsports really helped me out with giving me a great car that was fun in the rain. It is fun to be back with MX-5 Cup. There is always fun racing with the way Mazda has these cars set up. I am doubling down this weekend, competing in both MX-5 Cup and IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge. I am just hoping to win them all.”
Gonzalez will start eighth in Friday’s Round 2 race.
Much like the crowd watching the race, Nunes admitted he isn’t quite sure how he managed to finish second.
“Honestly, I am speechless,” Nunes said. “I am shaking. If it wasn’t for my Kicker Audio keeping me cool and collected through this event, I don’t know if I would have been able to pull it off. The BFGoodrich Tires kept these cars under our feet the entire race. Unfortunately, in the rain at Daytona our plans may not fall into place. My plan fell into the water, so I came up with new strategies on the fly. With quick reactions, I was able to take second place. I have no idea what happened in that final drag race to the finish. Everyone was pinching down to the bottom of the track, so we all got bottlenecked. I bet all the fans watching loved that type of racing, and we are looking forward to putting on more great events for them.”
After the four cars crossed the finish line, Rollan got sideways and hit the wall. He was able to walk away from the incident, but he crew has a long night of repairs ahead of them.
“I didn’t mean to be first to the line,” Rollan said. “They had a weird stack going coming up to the tri-oval. I didn’t know how that happened so I just picked a lane and ended up in first. I had a gap to Tyler [Gonzalez] so in Turn 5 I slowed down so he was on my bumper. There was nothing I could do at the end. It was some rough racing out there. I hope my car is okay – it’s wrecked right now. I know my Hixon Motorsports crew can help me out and we can figure out a plan. Thank you to Hixon Motorsports for all their help. The Austin Hatcher Foundation car looked and felt fantastic because of them. We will see what tomorrow brings.”
Rollan starts Friday’s race from pole.
Zilisch, the latest winner of the Mazda Shootout Scholarship, finished fourth even through several setbacks that could have ended his race. He was the highest finishing rookie in the race.
Thomas, a former scholarship winner himself, completed the top five.
The runner-up to Zilisch in this year’s MX-5 Cup Shootout, Bryce Cornet (No. 65 Hixon Motor Sports), was given the Hard Charger Award for starting 28th and finishing 13th.
Round Two of the Idemitsu Mazda MX-5 Cup goes green on Friday, January 28, at 10:15am ET with live coverage at RACER.com.