Thomas Closes Season with Win at Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta
BRASELTON, Ga. – It was Gresham Wagner’s $250,000 championship to lose as the Idemitsu Mazda MX-5 Cup Presented by BFGoodrich Tires finale got underway at Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta.
Wagner (No. 5 Spark Performance) came in with a comfortable, but not insurmountable, lead in the point standings. Halfway through the first of two 45-minute races at Michelin Raceway, it looked like he could say goodbye to that cushion. The battle at the front was tight and while racing door-to-door with another driver, Wagner ran out of room in Turn 1 and fell as far back as 11th place.
“I knew Selin (Rollan) and Michael (Carter) were going to race me hard. They had to. Because of the deficit in points, they had to beat me,” Wagner said. “I knew they’d try to shuffle me back and they did what they needed to do. It wasn’t looking great for me midway through that race, but I knew I had a fast car. I could see where I was faster than the cars around, so if I could put in some clean laps, I could be up there in the lead battle.”
Carter (No. 08 Carter Racing Enterprises) led Rollan (No. 87 Hixon Motor Sports) and Jared Thomas (No. 96 JTR Motorsports Engineering) across the line to start the final lap of Race 1. As the trio fought for the race win, Wagner, in fourth, saw his opportunity in the final turn, dove to the inside and went three wide through the apex with Carter and Thomas. Wagner’s car got loose on the exit, but he held on to take the checkered flag 0.015 seconds ahead of Thomas. Carter finished third.
“It was nerve-wracking to get shuffled back a bit with two laps to go, and I really had to claw back to put myself into a winning position coming to the last few corners, but luckily the guys in front raced each other just a little too hard and let me get a nose in there,” said Wagner. “I took advantage of a situation that just kind of fell to me.”
Chris Nunes (No. 32 JTR Motorsports Engineering) finished fourth and was named Hard Charger for picking up six positions during the race. That tightened up the Rookie of the Year standings. Finishing ninth, Sam Paley’s (No. 28 McCumbee McAleer Racing) 150-point lead over Nunes shrunk to 80 points.
Coming off of a win in the first race, Wagner’s margin over Carter meant that even if Carter won the second 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. Up at the front, Carter was fighting for the win with Thomas and Rollan. Wagner ultimately finished sixth, which was his worst finish of the season (save for a mechanical DNF at St. Petersburg), 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.”
On the final lap, Carter slid in Turn 5 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 only win of the season by 0.132 seconds 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 midseason, but (WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca) 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, but he made a mistake that let Selin 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.”
In the Rookie of the Year fight, Paley and Nunes 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 and the $80,000 that comes with it 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.”
A recap of the Michelin Raceway weekend airs at 3 p.m. ET Tuesday on NBCSN. The 2022 Idemitsu Mazda MX-5 Cup season opener is Jan. 27-30 at Daytona International Speedway.