Defending Idemitsu Mazda MX-5 Cup presented by BFGoodrich Tires champion Jared Thomas (No. 96 JTR Motorsports Engineering) timed the final lap of Friday’s race perfectly and beat Thursday’s race winner, Tyler Gonzalez (No. 51 Copeland Motorsports) to the finish line.
A full-course yellow with 15 minutes left in the race set up a one-lap dash to the checkered flag. Gonzalez led the field to the white flag restart, but Thomas got the better of him exiting the Le Mans Chicane. The pair continued nose to tail around the final high-banked corners of Daytona International Speedway, and Gonzalez waited until the last moment to jump out of the draft, but it wasn’t enough as Thomas took the win by 0.078s.
Thomas takes home an $8,000 check from Mazda for the win but knowing that his 2022 championship season started with a Race 2 win at Daytona was the best part for the JTR team leader.
“Since we got our first win of 2022 in Race 2 at Daytona last year, I am extremely excited to start this season off with a bang again,” Thomas said. “I thought it was a great race, although there was a chance we weren’t going to go back green, but I knew with the two Hixon cars right behind me I had to stay on the 51 (Tyler Gonzalez). They kind of got shuffled up behind us and it was just a two-car race and I played my run in just the right time to be able to get Tyler blind, so that was super exciting.
“The money is nice, but to be honest I was not thinking about the cash, I just wanted to win no matter what. It is nice to win here; this is a place I grew up as a little kid watching the 24 and it was kind of the race I always idolized. The feeling of being on victory lane here now twice is very special.”
Unlike Thursday evening’s race that ran under green from flag to flag, Friday’s event saw the field slowed for two full-course caution periods. The second of which lasted five laps with Gonzalez up front. Drivers were swerving aggressively behind the safety car to keep heat in their tires, but it was engine temperatures that occupied Gonzalez’s mind.
“For sure, it’s really cold here and you actually have to worry about your engine getting too cold since your water temps drop so fast,” Gonzalez said. “So when two laps were to go under that yellow, I just kept everything warm.”
Traditionally, leading at Daytona on the final lap is not where you want to be to get the win, so Gonzalez knew his fate was probably sealed, but being able to break free from the rest of the pack at least guaranteed a podium finish.
“Honestly, I was just happy that it was Jared, because then it is a guaranteed one, two not one through 15,” Gonzalez said. “Unfortunately, there is not too much you can do when you are that lead car, but I am happy for Jared, I am happy for Copeland bringing home a first and second place finish this weekend. I think that is pretty good.”
The 2021 Mazda MX-5 Cup series champion Gresham Wagner (No. 5 Spark Performance) benefited tremendously from the late full-course yellow. A poor start saw Wagner drop all the way to 20th before he started his climb to the podium. On the final restart he went from 10th to third.
“The beginning drop back was just cold tires and cold brakes and I guess you could also say over ambitious moves,” Wagner said. “I just carried a little too much speed and the car wasn’t up for it, which is why I caught a slide there and for a second I thought I was about to go around, it was that bad. Once I got back on the oval though everybody had momentum and just shuffled me back.
“I am just glad we were able to get that last lap in sitting P10 coming to the white flag,” Wagner added. “I knew I was finally up there where I could make something happen. Somehow, I always manage to get it done here at Daytona. I did not have the best race here yesterday finishing fifth and I really wanted to get on the podium here, which is always the goal. After that race I am pretty excited for a third, that is like a win.”
Wagner lead a pack of 10 cars to the finish line. He was just 0.036-second ahead of Selin Rollan (No. 87 Hixon Motor Sports) in fourth place who narrowly beat out Max Opalski (No. 2 Copeland Motorsports).
Opalski had what could be considered the save of the race when he and polesitter Sam Paley (No. 28 McCumbee McAleer Racing) made contact and both went through Turn One sideways together right in the thick of the five-car lead pack. Luckily the pair were able to control their cars and not collect anyone else in the process.
The latest Mazda MX-5 Cup Shootout Scholarship Winner, Nate Cicero (No. 83 McCumbee McAleer Racing) was the highest finishing rookie in eighth place.
Mazda MX-5 Cup is back in action March 3-5, at the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. Both races from Daytona International Raceway are available to re-watch on the IMSA YouTube Channel.