Gonzalez Beats the Sebring Heat to Take Tight Whelen Mazda MX-5 Cup Victory
 March 14, 2024| 
  • Series News

SEBRING, Fla. (March 14, 2024) - Tyler Gonzalez (No. 57 Saito Motorsports) held off three formidable opponents at Sebring International Raceway to take his first Whelen Mazda MX-5 Cup presented by Michelin race win of the season. Gonzalez made a last lap pass and kept three charging drivers behind in a mad dash from the final turn to the checkered flag, winning by 0.079-second.


Not long after the start of the 45-minute race, Gonzalez was part of a three-car pack that pulled away from the rest of the field. He and polesitter Connor Zilisch (No. 72 BSI Racing) spent most of the race trading the lead, while Nate Cicero (No. 83 McCumbee McAleer Racing) bided his time in third.

The trio were able to pull out a gap of nearly six seconds over the next group of cars, led by Gresham Wagner (No. 5 McCumbee McAleer Racing).


It may have appeared that Gonzalez and Zilisch were impatient, swapping the lead in an aggressive battle so early in the race, but under the hot Florida sun, both knew it was important to keep their car cool by getting clean air. When you’re the one in front, however, you’re the one pushing the air out of the way for the car behind you.

"It was really hot and slick-- not very fast,” Zilisch said. “But you know, the tires actually stayed on pretty well throughout the race. We weren't pushing that hard up front. Honestly, we were kind of just riding and that's why they (rest of the field) caught us.  We all wanted to lead to have the coolest car at the end. But, you know, it all comes down to the last lap so everything until then is kind of a throwaway.”

Wagner was focused on keeping his car cool as well. When Jared Thomas (No. 96 JTR Motorsports Engineering) and Westin Workman (No. 13 BSI Racing) started to scuffle behind him, he was able to pull away and close the gap to the leaders, with plenty of clean air ahead of him.


The race changed from car preservation to attack mode with two laps to go when Zilisch grabbed the lead from Gonzalez. By then, Wagner had caught the group and was filling the mirrors of third-place Cicero. An impressive progression considering the race ran without any caution periods.


On the final lap, coming into the final turn, Gonzalez went to the inside of Zilisch. Cicero pulled in behind Gonzalez and Wagner behind Zilisch. Exiting the turn, Gonzalez had the edge over Zilisch, who tucked in behind. Cicero opted to pop out of the train and Wagner took his place.


Zilisch tried to pop out from behind Gonzalez at the last minute, but it wasn’t enough, and Gonzalez took the win by 0.079-second. In line behind them, Wagner crossed the line third, 0.083-second head of Cicero.

"It's really hot out here today at Sebring and I think everyone was just trying to keep their cars cool,” Gonzalez said of his win. “I tried to stay up front as long as possible, really just waiting for the last 15 minutes to figure out who was where and what to do at the end. 

“I thought I was the better pusher and I wanted to see if we could push away from the rest of the pack and make it a two-car race. It just wasn't the case. I mean, my car was pretty cool enough so I knew I could sit behind him for at least two or three laps to bide my time. That's what I did. I waited until the last second and just made it happen.”


The win was the first for Gonzalez since Daytona in 2022.


“I can't thank Saito Motorsports Group, Whelen and Mazda enough and everyone that's helped get me here this weekend,” Gonzalez said. “I'm glad we could get it done and hopefully can do it tomorrow. It's been too long, too long!"


The ending could have been much different had Zilisch blocked off the inside from Gonzalez, which he wanted to do, but believed he couldn’t.


“I didn't know you could pass under the white line on the back straightaway and that's kind of why I didn't block it (Gonzalez pass in Turn 17), so that’s my fault," Zilisch said.  "I should have known that, but still it was a great day. It’s another good finish for the team, but hopefully tomorrow will be better. You know, we've got a really fast car and I feel like we can run with anybody, so I just have to do my job on the last lap.” 


Normally in an MX-5 Cup race, cars can work the draft together to make up lost ground, but that was not the case at Sebring.

"It's so hot out here that the following car just overheats so quickly so there's only so much you can do. I know he [Thomas] was trying to work together and he was definitely helping when he could, but I knew that as the lead car that I was the one that was cool and had to make the time. It was stagnated for a while there, but towards the end I could see the gap closing pretty quickly so it was just a matter of if I could get there in time.

"I knew the racing line ends up being the left-hand side, so I figured I'd just put my car over on the left and someone may end up getting hung out on the right. Unfortunately, it was my teammate [Cicero], but that's just where the momentum went. Happy to bring it home third after working so hard the whole race."

Cicero finished fourth, 2.78 seconds ahead of fifth-place Workman, who was the highest finishing rookie.


The second race of the Mazda MX-5 Cup doubleheader at Sebring takes place Friday, March 15, at 11:45am ET. The race is livestreamed on RACER.com and IMSA.tv.


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