After 45 minutes of frantic, all-green flag running with nearly 30 identically prepared Mazda MX-5 Cup machines fighting for position on the high banks at Daytona International Speedway, it was all of 0.015s that separated winner Tyler Gonzalez (No. 51 Copeland Motorsports) and runner-up Connor Zilisch (No. 72 Hixon Motor Sports) as the Idemitsu Mazda MX-5 Cup Presented by BFGoodrich Tires delivered another thriller. The margin of victory is the fourth closest in series history.
Gonzalez was the victor in last year’s season opener at Daytona as well, but thanks to Mazda’s new per-race payouts, the Floridian came away with $8,000 in addition to a trophy.
Earlier in the day, qualifying was cut short to retrieve damaged cars and prevented Gonzalez from turning a representative lap time. As a result, he started 19th on the grid. His years of experience paid off, however, as he managed to charge to 11th after a single lap.
It wasn’t long before he was with the lead pack, but actually taking the lead at Daytona is a tricky prospect. Time it wrong, and you’ll go from first to 10th before you get to the start/finish line. Gonzalez wasn’t sure he had timed it right until the checkered flag.
“Daytona is a draft track and you really have to have the experience to run up here at the front, especially like that last lap scenario,” Gonzalez said. “I’ve had so much practice over the years through this and Spec Miata, it shows it really does pay off, the experience. You definitely have to set it up. You want to stay up front throughout the race and then just figure out where you want to be for those final two laps. I had my spotter helping me, and I really knew I didn’t want to be up front where I was. I saw that train coming around the outside, but I am glad how it played out!”
The way it played out was with Gonzalez taking his fifth-career win in Mazda MX-5 Cup.
Polesitter Zilisch took control of the race early, leading a three-car train that eventually became eight in the closing laps of the race.
“Leading doesn’t guarantee anything on the last lap, here especially,” Zilisch said. “The first 44 minutes of the race are almost meaningless, as long as you can stay in that front pack. I just wanted to stay in the front pack. I like having control of the race and I was clearly trying to stay out front.”
After leading the first third of the 45-minute race, the 2022 Rookie of the Year bounced around within the lead group and on the penultimate lap he found himself clawing to stay in the top five.
What the draft took from Zilisch, it paid back in the final moments as he made a slingshot move into second at the line.
“My Hixon Motor Sports car was super-fast through the infield, so obviously we had to play the games on the straightaway,” said Zilisch. “On that last lap I think we got pushed back to sixth and had to bring it back up to the front. I think I was second by like 15th thousandths of a second. I guess I just love second place. There’s something about me and second place, but there’s always tomorrow. Hopefully we can one up and get on the top step tomorrow.”
In addition to being the 2022 MX-5 Cup Rookie of the Year, Zilisch was also second-place in the overall championship. He is provisionally slated to start Friday’s race from pole.
No one was more surprised by Zilisch’s runner-up finish than third-place finisher Sam Paley (No. 28 McCumbee McAleer Racing). Paley, who started ninth, had a plan for the final laps of the race, but couldn’t make it play out as he intended.
“It is a weird track with this car because it’s just back and forth,” Paley said. “No matter how fast you are you cannot get away, so it is a lot about strategy and how you position yourself. I got up to the lead and then I fell all the way back to sixth and then I think I went like sixth to second and I didn’t really want to be second on the last lap, but I didn’t think Bruno (Smielveski) was going to go all the way high and when I was in second all I wanted was the bottom lane and I was just hoping someone would shove me. Nobody ended up shoving me so that is why I am third, but one day. We will take the $4k and third place, not bad.”
Mazda’s new per-race prize package pays out to all finishers in the top 10 plus $2,000 for the highest finishing female driver. In the season opener, that was Heather Hadley (No. 54 Spark Performance), a Mazda Women in Motorsports Initiative Scholarship winner. She finished 23rd.
Aaron Jeansonne (No. 24 JTR Motorsports Engineering), a former Mazda MX-5 Cup Shootout Scholarship winner, kicked off his 2023 season with a strong performance at Daytona. Jeansonne was with the lead group for the entire race and made his way to the lead in some of the final laps but ended up fourth at the checkered flag.
The 2021 Mazda MX-5 Cup Champion Gresham Wagner (No. 5 Spark Performance) completed the top five after a strong charge from 11th on the grid.
The highest finishing rookie was Bruno Smielevski (No. 85 Hixon Motor Sports), who was the race leader as the pack exited the Le Mans Chicane, but the draft was too strong and he dropped to sixth at the finish.
Round Two of the Idemitsu Mazda MX-5 Cup takes place Friday, January 27 at 10:15am ET. The race will be streamed live on RACER.com.