Jared Thomas Sees His Lead Slip to 55 Points over Gresham Wagner Heading to the Final Rounds
ALTON, Va. – The fight for the Idemitsu Mazda MX-5 Cup presented by BFGoodrich Tires championship got much tighter after Rounds 11 and 12 at VIRginia International Raceway. Jared Thomas (No. 96 JTR Motorsports Engineering) continues to lead, but a disastrous race for Thomas on Saturday enabled Connor Zilisch (No. 72 Hixon Motor Sports) and Gresham Wagner (No. 5 Spark Performance) to close the gap considerably.
Contact damaged Thomas’ car in Saturday’s race and forced him to pit for repairs. He returned to the track and was able to make his way back to 17th place at the finish.
Meanwhile, the two drivers chasing him in the championship were battling up front for the win. Zilisch and Wagner were both trying to hold off Tyler Gonzalez (No. 51 Copeland Motorsports), who had charged from the last row of the grid to third.
Gonzalez got the better of them on the last lap and held off Zilisch to the finish, taking the win by 0.076 seconds. It was Gonzalez’s third win of the year, but due to missing both Road America rounds, he is not in contention for the series title. He did collect Saturday’s Hard Charger Award for picking up 26 positions during the race.
“These races are always filled with mayhem from the get-go,” Gonzalez said. “It’s all about trying to avoid it. We did a great job at that, kept the car 100 percent clean and ready for (Sunday’s race). I was really happy where I was in second place on the last lap. You don’t really want to lead here on a long straightaway because you’ll just get blown by. I was able to push Connor and we got a little bit of a gap and made it a two-car race. We are definitely going to take any chance we can get whether we are in the championship or not. We are just here to win some races.”
Aware of Thomas’ struggles, Zilisch and Wagner were both content to settle for second and third, respectively. Gonzalez was not as fortunate on Sunday when crash damage ended his race early.
Wagner and Zilisch were once again up front exchanging the lead Sunday but got a little too close in Turn 1. A tap from Zilisch on Wagner’s rear bumper sent both cars sideways and gave Sam Paley (No. 28 McCumbee McAleer Racing) the room to join their battle.
Zilisch learned his lesson from the previous race and took over the lead on the final lap. He held off Wagner and Paley to take his third win of the season.
“I knew what I wanted to do,” Zilisch said. “We got the lead coming to the white flag and just had to defend going down the back straightaway the right way, which I did. I was able to keep (Wagner) behind me going through Rollercoaster and down into Hog Pen. I’m super proud of the car the team brought me once again. We had the best car and it showed. We were finally able to get that win here at VIR. To win three of the last four races in MX-5 Cup is pretty awesome. I’m really looking forward to Road Atlanta and making it a championship fight.”
It looked as though Thomas was going to have another heartbreaker of a race when contact damaged his car on the opening lap. His team worked a miracle, however, and was able to fix it on pit lane without losing a lap.
“At the beginning, it was a nightmare and I had seen it before,” Thomas said. “The car was un-drivable actually. I went out and said, ‘Guys, I don’t think I can drive this, I’ve got to come back’ and they were like, ’We’ll jack it up and see if we can move the alignment.’ Sure enough, we found something, just winged it and hoped it was good enough. I can’t thank those guys enough.”
Thomas proceeded to charge through the field, all the way to fourth by the checkered flag. While doing that he set the fastest lap of the race which got him an extra 10 points.
“Thankfully, we caught that caution and I just put my head down and went. I had a really fast car,” he said. “I’ve had a fast car all weekend, we just had terrible luck. Everything after that went right for the most part. We were able to come away with some bonus points and a top-five finish.”
Despite the comeback, the damage to his points lead was done. Thomas went from 255 points ahead of Wagner to only 55 points. Zilisch is now only 140 points out of the top spot. The trio will take the fight for $250,000 championship prize to the final two races.
Zilisch is also firmly in control of rookie of the year points. He has a 705-point lead and is on the verge of collecting the $80,000 rookie prize from Mazda.
Both races from VIR are available to watch anytime on the IMSA YouTube channel.
The final two rounds of the Mazda MX-5 Cup championship happen at Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta, Sept. 28-30. Both races will stream live on IMSA.com/TVLive.