By Mark Robinson IMSA Wire Service
Considering where they were four short months and five races ago, the fact that the No. 7 Acura Team Penske drivers are even talking about an IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship is astounding.
That they are leading the Daytona Prototype international (DPi) class heading into today’s 2020 season finale is just as amazing, though not totally surprising knowing the resilience and dedication put into any Team Penske project. So it is, as the 68th annual Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring Presented by Advance Auto Parts takes the green flag just past 10 a.m. ET, that No. 7 co-drivers Helio Castroneves and Ricky Taylor hold a razor-thin two-point lead in the driver and team battles.
“It was a very rough season, the beginning,” Castroneves admitted, alluding to a pair of eighth-place finishes and one seventh-place result that put the No. 7 in a deep hole to start this pandemic-altered season. Following that third race, the Cadillac Grand Prix of Sebring on July 18, Castroneves and Taylor were 22 points out of the class lead and mostly an afterthought in the championship.
That was then; this is now. The No. 7 Acura ARX-05 has won four of the last five races and finished second the other time to steamroll into the points lead as the series returns to Sebring International Raceway for the iconic 12-hour race postponed from its typical March date to serve as the finale.
“This is a perfect example that in racing, anything is possible,” Castroneves said. “Right now, I can’t believe that we’re leading the championship. Everything, we put it together, we put ourselves in this position. … Yes, momentum is everything and we’re going to ride this wave going to the last race at Sebring.”
Castroneves and Taylor will be joined behind the wheel for the third time this season by Alexander Rossi. The 2016 Indianapolis 500 winner said his focus is the same as everyone else involved: securing the championship that would serve as the perfect final chapter for Team Penske, which has already announced its exit from WeatherTech Championship competition after this season.
“The fact that the Twelve Hours of Sebring is the finale is awesome; it’s one of the highlight races of the series, no doubt,” Rossi said. “The fact that it’s going to be kind of a winner-take-all situation, I think, is special for the teams, the drivers and the fans.
“Everyone has a single focus in mind and that’s to come out of this with a championship to kind of finish the partnership that’s been so successful with Acura and Team Penske through these three years.”
Taylor is chasing his second WeatherTech Championship title. Ironically, the first came three years ago driving for his father’s team, Wayne Taylor Racing, whose No. 10 Konica Minolta Cadillac drivers Ryan Briscoe and Renger van der Zande are the nearest combatants for the 2020 crown. And fittingly, Ricky Taylor, who qualified on the pole position Friday, will share the front row with van der Zande, who qualified second. Taylor and Castroneves have scored 242 points to 240 for Briscoe and van der Zande. Pipo Derani (No. 31 Whelen Engineering Cadillac) is still in the running for the championship with 233 points. Ricky Taylor believes the Cadillacs have an advantage on the rough 3.74-mile, 17-turn Sebring circuit, but he’s not ceding anything.
“At this point in the championship, this is where you want to be,” he said. “You want to be in the fight. It’s super exciting. For us it’s definitely a big-pressure situation every time we go to Sebring. The Cadillacs are very strong.
“We need to be prepared to win the race, not just play a safe championship battle and follow them around. I think everybody’s really excited and really motivated. … I think we’re all at the top of our game, so if there’s ever a time to go to Sebring and fight for the championship, this is the one.”
NBC Sports will have complete live television coverage of the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring Presented by Advance Auto Parts, beginning at 10 a.m. ET on NBCSN. Coverage shifts to NBC network from 3 to 6 p.m. before returning to NBCSN at 6 p.m. through the checkered flag and post-race celebrations.