Race Winner Leads Only the Final Few Yards in Another Series Thriller to Open 2024 Season
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – After 45 minutes of green-flag racing, 11 cars approached the finish line at Daytona International Speedway with a shot at winning the first event of the 2024 Whelen Mazda MX-5 Cup presented by Michelin series season. When the pack crossed the line and the timing screens updated, it was Gresham Wagner (No. 5 McCumbee McAleer Racing) with the win, 0.060-second ahead of Tyler Gonzalez (No. 57 Saito Motorsports).
In true Whelen Mazda MX-5 Cup fashion, even in the final moments of the race, nobody could predict who the winner would be.
It took a few laps, but the pack of 28 cars that took the green flag eventually broke into two groups, one of them an 11-car train at the front. Six different drivers led laps during the race, and that’s only as they crossed start-finish, the strong draft on Daytona’s high banks caused the order to change numerous times between turns.
Wagner, who won the very first Mazda MX-5 Cup race at Daytona in 2021, qualified outside the top 10. His experience at the 3.56-mile road course told him that would not be a disadvantage.
“It would have before, but you do this enough times and you end up starting from every spot on the grid,” Wagner said. “I felt like 12th was at least in the hunt.”
The same could be said for Gonzalez who qualified 14th but was up to fourth by lap six.
“Last year I won from 18th, so qualifying wasn’t an issue. I’d like to say it’s all skill, but it’s not really here at Daytona,” Gonzalez said. “You all have to work together.”
In the early stages, BSI Racing teammates Connor Zilisch (No. 72 BSI Racing) and Selin Rollan (No. 87 BSI Racing/Rollan Racing) worked well together and held the front two spots, but it was only a matter of time before JTR Motorsports Engineering swooped in with Jared Thomas (No. 96 JTR Motorsports Engineering) and Aaron Jeansonne (No. 24 JTR Motorsports Engineering).
BSI team member and Mazda Shootout Scholarship winner Westin Workman (No. 13 BSI Racing) came along to support Zilisch and Rollan, but it all allowed McCumbee McAleer Racing teammates Jeremy Fletcher (No. 22 McCumbee McAleer Racing) and Wagner to squeeze their way to the front.
The teamwork happening amongst the pack made for thrilling racing but left several cars with damaged rear bumpers from all the drafting. Rollan, Workman and Wagner all had loose bodywork potentially hurting their aerodynamic performance.
Exiting the Le Mans Chicane on the final lap, it was rookie Julian DaCosta (No. 78 BSI Racing) who led, but MX-5 Cup veterans know that is the last place you want to be to take the win. Two trains of cars split DaCosta as they headed toward the checkered flag.
With a nice push from Gonzalez, Wagner crossed the line first with Gonzalez second and Fletcher third.
“It is tough, because you don’t want to go too early, and you also don’t want to get hung out if you go out too late,” Wagner said. “I think I did it with just the right amount of patience. We went two-wide in the bus stop! It was really hard to stay back and know you had the run coming to the line. You almost see the race disappear in front of you, and then all of a sudden coming out of (turn) four it comes back to you. It’s an art to race here. Especially at the front coming to the line.”
Twice a MX-5 Cup winner at Daytona, Gonzalez couldn’t complain about a runner-up finish this time around.
“Gresham [Wagner] and I worked great for the race, but honestly congrats to him and his team,” said Gonzalez. “Thank you to my parents and thank you to Saito Motorsports. I couldn’t lose to a better person honestly, he’s one of the fastest guys out there.
“All I know is it was a mad dash and I just couldn’t get unhooked from Gresham’s bumper to pop out and I didn’t want to risk spinning and taking out the whole field,” Gonzalez said of the finish. “It was a great race, 12th to second— I can’t be too mad about that.”
Now in his sophomore season of MX-5 Cup, Fletcher was thrilled to get his first podium at the storied Daytona International Speedway, even if he spun after the finish line.
“It’s definitely an amazing feeling,” Fletcher said. “I can’t thank the MMR guys enough for the car they supplied me. After a tough rookie season, it is great to accomplish this. It is amazing to have teammates like I do. I ended up crossing the line backwards, but during the race I felt more secure and it was good to be in that lead pack. I was in a good spot and waited through the bus stop and then just shot my shot.”
Jeansonne just barely held on to fourth place, crossing the finish line 0.003-second head of Zilisch.
There’s sure to be more of the same in the second half of the MX-5 Cup doubleheader at Daytona. Friday’s Round 2 race will go green at 10:15 a.m. ET and stream live on IMSA.com/TVLive.