Mazda exits with Petit Le Mans victory as Derani, Nasr claim DPi championship

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On a night of fitting farewells in the IMSA Petit Le Mans season finale, Felipe Nasr said goodbye to Action Express with a championship while Harry Tincknell closed Mazda’s IMSA run in DPi with a victory Saturday at Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta.

Tincknell took the checkered flag in the No. 55 Mazda by 3.297 seconds over the No. 31 Cadillac of Nasr, who clinched the title over third-place finisher Ricky Taylor and Wayne Taylor Racing co-driver Filipe Albuquerque.

After Nasr caught heavy GT congestion on the final lap, Taylor attempted to outbrake his rival in the last corner. The cars made contact, and Taylor skidded through the grass and finished a half-second short of the championship.

Nasr was leading and seemed in command until the final 20 minutes when he yielded the lead to Tincknell in traffic and quickly came under fire from Taylor, who made up a gap of more than 10 seconds over the final stint.

“I got really bad timing with traffic,” Nasr told NBC Sports reporter Marty Snider. “I had nothing to do but defend myself. I did it the way I thought was the best was going to be for the outcome. I saw (Taylor) go that deep, I thought, ‘He ain’t going to make it.’

“Man, so many things in my mind. So many emotions. My final race with the team. Grabbing this championship means so much. So much effort we put together. I just can’t believe it. I’m so glad. I’m so happy for these guys. I’ll be forever grateful for a huge team that I’ve been part of it. It’s so great to close the year with this championship, so thank you very much Action Express Racing and Whelen Engineering.

Nasr, who is moving to another automaker’s LMDh prototype program, won the championship with fellow Brazilian Pipo Derani. Mike Conway joined the team Saturday as its third endurance race driver.

“You can see it in my face,” a crying Derani told Snider about his emotions. “Such a difficult beginning of the year. You guys can’t imagine how I went through such a low and now to be, with a lot of belief in God, to come back this year and win it with the 31 Whelen Engineering Cadillac is just fantastic. Felipe did an amazing job today and Mike as well. We made it. We made it. We’re champions.”

Petit Le Mans
Pipo Derani celebrates with the Brazilian flag after winning the IMSA DPi championship (IMSA).

By virtue of Nasr having won the pole position Friday and cutting Wayne Taylor Racing’s lead to eight points in the standings, the top two teams in DPi entered in a virtual tie that ensured the 2021 championship would go to whichever finished ahead.

The outcome was similar to the end of the 2020 Petit Le Mans when Taylor and Derani collided while racing for the lead with less than 10 minutes left. Taylor said there were no hard feelings about Saturday’s contact, which was reviewed by IMSA officials.

“We’re racing really hard, and the championship literally came down to the last corner,” Taylor told NBC Sports’ Kevin Lee. “Especially after last year, I’m happy for those guys. They deserve it. They had a great year. I’m just so bummed for Filipe who drove an amazing stint to catch those guys.”

Taylor, who also shared the No. 10 Acura with 2016 Indy 500 winner Alexander Rossi, seemed in good position on strategy after his team took four tires for its last stop while Nasr took only two rear tires.

“Really bummed, but Daytona’s close,” Taylor said. “We’re a strong team, and we’ll be back. When they said they took rears only, I knew we had a chance. At this stage of the race, everyone’s being polite, everybody is moving out of the way. You don’t get as many chances to get runs like in the middle of the race.

“(Nasr) was managing the traffic really well. I gave everything I had. There’s going to be a lot of nightmares before Daytona thinking about what I could have done differently. I’m hungry to get back out there. Just can’t thank the HPD Acura Konica Minolta guys enough, expecially this weekend. It was such a trying weekend finding pace, and they gave us an amazing car in the race.”

It’s the second consecutive year that Mazda won the season finale after capturing the 2020 Twelve Hours of Sebring. The manufacturer announced in February that this would be its final season in DPi.

“It’s a Hollywood script come true,” Tincknell told NBC Sports’ Dillon Welch. “It was pure hard work by everyone at Mazda. I never gave up with two stints to go, had a 5-second gap to close down, just kept telling myself, ‘Keep digging, keep digging.’ I knew (Nasr was) fighting for the championship and just gave everything. I wanted to win so much.”

In other divisions Saturday:

–The WeatherTech Racing Porsche team scored a 1-2 finish in the final GTLM race as the No. 3 Corvette of Antonio Garcia and Jordan Taylor clinched the title.

–The No. 23 Heart of Racing Aston Martin won the GTD class while the championship went to the No. 9 Pfaff Motorsports Porsche of Laurens Vanthoor and Zacharie Robichon.