Clever Defense Earns Zilisch Exhilarating Mazda MX-5 Cup Win at Road Atlanta
 October 13, 2023| 
  • Series News
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BRASELTON, Ga. (Oct. 12, 2023) - A masterful last lap pass earned Connor Zilisch (No. 72 Hixon Motor Sports) the Idemitsu Mazda MX-5 Cup presented by BFGoodrich® Tires Round 13 win at Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta on Thursday.

 

Zilisch led Tyler Gonzalez (No. 35 Saito Motorsports Group) across the finish line by just 0.144-second, while championship contender Jared Thomas (No. 96 JTR Motorsports Engineering) finished third. The podium finish nearly guarantees Thomas a second Mazda MX-5 Cup Championship with one race remaining.

 

Following qualifying, the championship appeared to be swinging toward Aaron Jeansonne (No. 24 JTR Motorsports Engineering) who scored pole and with it 10 bonus points to tighten the deficit to Thomas. Jeansonne defended the lead for the opening laps of the race but fell victim to the all-important draft and dropped to fourth. He had a difficult time recovering and continued to lose positions. Contact with another car nearly took him out of the top 10, but he soldiered on and finished seventh.

 

Meanwhile, at the front of the field, it was a four-car battle for the lead. Zilisch, Gonzalez, Thomas and Selin Rollan (No. 87 Hixon Motorsports) were locked together nose-to-tail and exchanged the lead frequently.

 

Zilisch started the final lap in the lead but came under attack from all sides on the back stretch. Just when it looked like Gonzalez and Thomas were going to get the better of him, Zilisch swung wide exiting Turn 10 and retook the lead cresting the hill into Turn 12.

 

Rollan finished third on track, but a 10-second penalty for contact earlier in the race dropped him to fourth in the official results. That gave the final podium spot to Thomas.

 

“Going into this weekend, I knew that there was a championship battle going on around me and it looks like Jared's [Thomas] got that pretty much locked up,” Zilisch said. “So, going for race wins is the goal and I was able to get the win in race one.”

 

It is the third win of the season for Zilisch, who missed four races due to conflicts with other championships and is not in the running for the title.

 

“I had a really good Hixon Motor Sports car,” Zilisch said. “They always give me cars capable of winning and leave it in my hands to capitalize on that and do my job. I’m just thankful I was able to come back out here and get a win for my team. I wasn't able to do the full season, unfortunately – I wish I could have raced for a championship this year, but circumstances didn’t allow that, but I’m grateful I could come out here and get some wins every now and then.”

 

Having run a partial season schedule, Gonzalez too is not in the hunt for a championship, so it was all about the win for him at Road Atlanta.

 

“At the end of the day, we're here to race,” Gonzalez said. “Obviously, I don't want to take anybody out or cost anybody points, but it was good, hard, fair racing, and that's all we can do.

 

“It got a little dicey a couple of minutes in, but everyone kept it clean for the most part,” Gonzalez said of his return to the series. “It was a good battle in the last lap – I wasn't really sure how it was going to play out, but I'm happy with the result. It's a good return back.”

 

Despite being in a fight for the championship, Thomas had no plans to play it safe. He wanted the win.

 

“We knew with about 10 minutes left that the 87 (Rollan) car had a penalty and that would take him out of play,” Thomas said. “So from there, I just had to keep the 72 (Zilisch) and 87 separated – I knew that if I could do that, I’d have a good shot at the win. I felt pretty comfortable, so I went for it. You can’t get too conservative because that will get you into trouble too.” 

 

Thomas came into the finale with a 290-point lead over Jeansonne. A third-place finish widens the gap to 340 points. As long as Thomas starts Friday’s race, he will be crowned the 2023 champion—the first repeat champion in series history—and take home the $250,000 prize from Mazda.

 

“I came into this season not worrying about points: just focusing on having fun and winning races – and ultimately, that’s what I think is the most fun,” Thomas said. “Every time you get an opportunity, you have to take it, because it’s too hard to win in this series. You don’t get that many opportunities, so you have to take it.”

 

Despite the 10-second penalty, Rollan was far enough ahead of the rest of the field to still be classified in fourth on the results sheet.

 

John Jodoin (No. 39 McCumbee McAleer Racing) secured another top five finish in his sophomore season and is surely knocking on the door of his first podium.

 

The Rookie of the Year chase became significantly closer as Thomas Annunziata (No. 10 Hixon Motor Sports) finished eighth, while Nate Cicero (No. 83 McCumbee McAleer Racing) had a spin mid-race and ended up finishing 18th. This shrunk Cicero’s lead over Annunziata down to 160 points as they enter the final race on Friday.

 

The 2023 Mazda MX-5 Cup season wraps up Friday, October 13, at 10:30am ET. The race livestream is available at RACER.com.

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