DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – For the first 41 minutes of the Mazda MX-5 Cup presented by BFGoodrich Tires race, the top four cars never traded places and never left each other’s bumpers.
But in the final four minutes, it was impossible to predict who would take the win in a mad dash to the finish line. With a strong slingshot out of the final corner, Gresham Wagner claimed victory.
Starting from the pole position, Wagner’s No. 5 Spark Performance Mazda MX-5 was immediately swallowed up by the rows behind him and he tumbled down the order. Wagner fell as far back as 12th before he was able to start climbing back through the field.
Meanwhile at the front, Preston Pardus, Selin Rollan, Jared Thomas and Michael Carter were a four-car train out front that never switched up the order.
It was a late-race yellow that bunched the pack up and set the stage for a green-white-checkered finish. Wagner was immediately on the attack, clawing his way toward the leaders. At the white flag, he was past Carter and diving inside of Thomas to get to third.
As the pack of 26 cars exited the Bus Stop and entered the high banks of NASCAR Turn 4, the drafting game was on and as they streamed toward the checkered flag, everyone fanned out in a mad dash toward the line.
When the timing screen refreshed, it was Wagner in first by .108-second.
“I was playing catch-up for the first 43 minutes of the race,” Wagner said. “But then the last two minutes were just trying to make something happen.”
Even when Wagner worked his way back to fifth, the lead pack still seemed out of reach.
“I lost a bunch of spots on the first lap and I knew what was going on (with the car), so I put the clutch in and shut the car off, and fired it back up and it was fine. I managed to work back up to fifth, but then I needed a yellow to catch the leaders,” said Wagner.
“I couldn’t have predicted that! (about the win). From dropping all the way back to then being kind of hanging out there behind the lead pack in no man’s land for 15-20 minutes… It was just a well-timed caution, a couple of good moves and then I got a big push, picked the right lane and got lucky at the end there and then brought it home! I wish I could say I made the right moves and had it all planned out, but it just happened to unfold the way it did.”
Wagner had a little help at the very end from Sam Paley. In only his second-ever Mazda MX-5 Cup race, Paley gave Wagner a little bump and hung in his draft, getting a pull to second place at the line.
“Honestly, we really lucked out with that yellow,” Paley said. “I think I was sitting P8, in the second pack, and the first pack had pulled a few seconds ahead, so that yellow really helped us out. On the last lap, some incidents happened, but I made some passes and got into a good position going into NASCAR turns three and four and into the Bus Stop. I came out P5 then had some help from behind to catch the leading four cars. I had a big draft, pushed Gresham to the win and got a P2 out of it! I’m excited for tomorrow, hopefully we can do one better. I’m really happy for the team.”
Jared Thomas spent the majority of the race in third, but when the race restarted from yellow with four minutes left, he was fighting to hang on to the final podium spot. He pulled even with Paley at the finish line but was 0.001-second shy of grabbing second place.
“The finish was wild,” said Thomas, who won the closest-ever Mazda MX-5 Cup race last year with a .0009-second victory at NJMP.
“We all just came out of turn four and it was a crapshoot. You didn’t know if someone was going to pop out with you or leave you out to dry. I luckily got a big draft when Selin (Rollan) pulled out and was able to go to the bottom and finish third. At tracks like this, you are happy to leave here with a podium and then move on to more technical courses when the draft isn’t as important.
“There was a four car break away and I was sitting third and we were just cruising. I really wasn’t happy to see the caution because me and Michael (Carter) would have had something for him [Pardus]. After that we were kind of just coasting and maintaining the gap. I figured there would be a pretty interesting finish whether we had a caution or went green all the way. All in all, not a bad race and we’ll be ready for tomorrow.”
Just missing the podium in his first MX-5 Cup race, Mazda Scholarship winner Chris Nunes was right behind his teammate in fourth.
Justin Piscitell completed the top five.