With four victories in its past five races, Acura Team Penske will enter Sebring International Raceway on the verge of punctuating the end of its run with a DPi title in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship.
But it was a low point during the No. 7 team’s dismal start that might have foretold its finishing kick.
After Helio Castroneves was wrecked by Harry Tincknell less than four hours into the Rolex 24 at Daytona, the Penske crew went to work. Despite losing 23 laps on repairs that took more than 30 minutes, Castroneves returned to the track with a determined sense of purpose along with co-drivers Ricky Taylor and Alexander Rossi.
The team would finish 22 laps behind the race winner as the last of the eight DPi cars in the race – but still just ahead of every other car in the lower classes, including the LMP2 winner that the team spent much of the race trying to chase down and beat to the checkered flag.
“The whole team was just focused on we need to at least finish as the eighth-place car,” said Rossi, who will return to the team for his third and final endurance race this season with Saturday’s Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring. “We didn’t want to finish behind (the LMP2) cars. We weren’t content to park the car. We kept fighting over the other 20 hours of the race as if there was a podium or win on the line.
Some 💪 stats for the No. 7 @Acura.
It all comes down to Saturday for @RickyTaylorRace, @h3lio and @AlexanderRossi. 🏁 #IMSA | @HondaRacing_HPD pic.twitter.com/nzF1BNwNUZ
— Team Penske (@Team_Penske) November 11, 2020
“So I think regardless of the surrounding situations, the methodology and mindset and approach have been the same. It’s been a real pleasure to work with everyone in the capacity I have. It’s one more weekend to get it done.”
Saturday’s race at Sebring International Raceway will mark the end of a three-year run as Acura and Honda Performance Development move on to other teams next season, and Penske puts its sports car program on hiatus.
The No. 7 will have the chance to go out on top after an impressive stretch starting with a victory at Road America by Castroneves and Taylor. The duo would win the next two races at Michelin Road Atlanta and Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.
After a runner-up finish in the Petit Le Mans (which featured a late crash with Taylor and Pipo Derani battling for the lead), the No. 7 was gifted a victory by No. 6 teammates (and defending series champions) Dane Cameron and Juan Pablo Montoya at Laguna Seca.
That’s put the team two points ahead of the No. 10 Wayne Taylor Racing Cadillac of Ryan Briscoe and Renger van der Zande (who will be joined by six-time IndyCar champion Scott Dixon at Sebring) and nine points ahead of Derani, who is teamed with Felipe Nasr and Gabby Chaves in the No. 31 Whelen Engineering Cadillac.
Such a scenario might have seemed impossible after the No. 7 followed the Rolex 24 with a last-place finish in the July 4 race at Daytona International Speedway (because of an engine failure) left them 18 points out of the championship lead.
“Obviously a very rough season at the beginning and who would have thought,” Castroneves said. “But this is a perfect example that in racing, anything is possible. Right now, I can’t believe we’re leading the championship. We put ourselves in this position. When you combine the whole ingredients together, yes, momentum is everything. We’re going to definitely ride this wave to go into the last race. Anything can happen, so again we don’t want to lose this momentum, especially now that we need it.”
In the last outing at Sebring – a two-hour, 40-minute race on July 18 – the Penske Acuras were sixth and seventh. Led by Derani and Nasr, Cadillacs swept the top three spots and have won three of the past four at the 17-turn, 3.74-mile road course.
Taylor is expecting the trailing Cadillacs to be a major threat again this weekend.
“I think as at the IndyCar finale at St. Pete, everybody’s got to raise their game,” he said. “Josef (Newgarden) had to win, and Dixon had to have an outstanding performance, too. Those guys are champions, and they really raised their game when they needed to, and that’s kind of what we need to try to do this weekend. We’ll fight the Cadillacs as best we can. There’s a few of them, so who knows if they’re going to help each other, but we’ve got a great wingman in the 6 and a really strong driver lineup with Alex joining us again.
“He’s fresh off Petit Le Mans, where he passed for the lead in his last stint in the car, so I think we’re all fresh and ready, and we’re all at the top of our games, so if there’s ever a time to go to Sebring to fight for a championship, this is the one.”
Though the team has faced an uncertain future for much of the season (Castroneves just announced a part-time IndyCar ride next season; Taylor has yet to announce his plans), the drivers said it’s had no detrimental impact on performance.
“Even though the program only has one race left, it’s full attack,” Taylor said. “As guys are developing things right up to the last minute, I think the car is going to be at the very best it’s ever been. I think they’re not wanting to go back to Sebring without giving us the best shot possible to win. The way the points look, if (Wayne Taylor Racing) wins the race, which they’re always strong there, they win the championship. So we need to be prepared to win the race. Not just play a safe championship battle and follow them around. I think everyone is really motivated and really working hard.”
Said Castroneves: “As soon as we knew the news regarding this program was being terminated, we never thought like, ‘Oh, that’s it.’ We always had the same thing in mind, finishing the best way possible, and it shows. We started winning, and everything started clicking, and we just kept rolling the good momentum. It motivated us to finish on a high note. We’re going to fight a lot to make sure we get this championship.”
After his first winless season in IndyCar, Rossi also has extra motivation to earn his first IMSA victory at a historic track that normally holds its prestigious race in March instead of November. The impact of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic on scheduling doesn’t lessen its value.
“The fact that the Twelve Hours of Sebring is the finale is awesome,” Rossi said. “It’s one of the highlight races of the series, no doubt. The fact that it really is going to be a winner-take-all situation no less is really special for teams, drivers and fans. It’s a big event. It’s a lot of pressure, but I think the whole team, everyone has a single focus in mind: To finish it on a high note, to win one of the biggest endurance races of the year, as well as the second championship in two years.”