DAYTONA BEACH, Fla.– Reigning Whelen Mazda MX-5 Cup presented by Michelin rookie-of-the-year and past MX-5 Cup Shootout winner Nate Cicero survived a last-lap frenzy to win at Daytona Int’l Speedway on Friday.
Cicero’s No. 83 McCumbee McAleer Racing entry was closely followed across the finish line by his teammate Jeremy Fletcher, making it a one-two finish for the McCumbee McAleer squad.
The second Whelen Mazda MX-5 Cup race at Daytona played out much like the first, as the draft was key again ahead of a scrappy final lap.
Connor Zilisch had an incredible opening lap in the No. 72 for BSI Racing, going from 11th to fourth. Two laps later, he was in the lead, at the front of an eight-car pack.
Not long after, the dangers of Daytona’s high banks were on display. Preston Pardus got loose in the draft and hit the wall exiting NASCAR turn four. He bounced back down the track to the infield and eventually came to a rest near turn one.
Nathan Nicholson moved to avoid hitting Pardus, but that turned the car and sent him into the wall at start/finish. From there, the first and only full-course caution of the race was issued with Zilisch still leading the field.
After four laps behind the Whelen Mazda MX-5 Cup safety car, the green flag went back on display.
Zilisch continued to lead for several laps afterwards, but his strong defense came to a sad end when his car’s ABS failed. He locked up his brakes several times on a single lap before making his way to pit lane.
At the front, Tyler Gonzalez, Cicero, and Jared Thomas were working together to stay ahead of the pack.
On the final lap, Cicero led the field into turn one, followed by Thomas and Westin Workman. Entering turn five, a chain reaction that started at the back of the pack ended with Thomas and Workman spinning into the grass.
That gave Cicero a healthy lead going into the bus-stop chicane, a spot that historically hasn’t been the preferred place to be the leader on the final lap of a Daytona Mazda MX-5 Cup race.
However, Cicero managed to build enough of a gap to prevent Gonzalez, Fletcher, and Rollan from drafting past him before the checkered flag.
“I was just watching the mirror the whole time,” Cicero said. “They had a whole train coming but my spotter was saying I had a 10- or 12-car gap. I was just hoping we had enough. The MMR car was absolutely on wheels and the team swept the weekend. To have the DNF yesterday after having such a strong start, we needed redemption today. It never gets old winning races, so I’m so happy to do this today.
“I think there was a small crash behind me, and so I ended up with a huge lead and just held on.”
Gonzalez crossed the line in second but was issued a 10-second penalty for an incident early in the race, bumping him to ninth in the final results.
That gave the runner-up spot to Fletcher, who got his second podium finish of the weekend.
“It is definitely nice to be consistent here with two podiums,” Fletcher said. “The car was on fire. I can’t thank the whole McCumbee McAleer team enough along with all my sponsors: The Holster Store, Home Decor and More. This whole weekend has been great.
“On the last lap, going into the horseshoe I got hit from behind. Everyone kind of got plowed out of the way. I’m not sure who it was, but I felt it!” noted Fletcher. “For the rest of the season, hopefully I can stay up front and stay consistent and start making new drafting buddies.”
Finishing third, Rollan again missed out on an elusive Daytona win, but was happy with third after starting the final lap in 11th place.
“It seemed to be similar to yesterday,” Rollan said. “I tried to get as many positions as I could. I saw Jared [Thomas] spinning up top, so I just stayed tight. I got some pushes and I’m happy to be here getting the first podium for Rollan Racing and BSI.”
Thursday race winner Gresham Wagner was fourth to give McCumbee McAleer Racing three of the top four finishing positions, with rookie Noah Harmon completing the top five for Spark Performance.
Rounds three and four of the Whelen Mazda MX-5 Cup season take place at Sebring (Fla.) Int’l Raceway, March 13-16.
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