What a long, strange trip it’s been.
When the green flag waved on the Rolex 24 At Daytona in January, who could have foreseen the checkered flag wouldn’t fall on the 2020 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship until Nov. 14 at the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring Presented by Advance Auto Parts?
But nearly 10 months and nine races of a condensed schedule since July later (including GT-only rounds at VIR and Charlotte), a topsy-turvy season that almost didn’t happen will crown a bevy of champions on Saturday night. And while the GT Le Mans (GTLM) and Le Mans Prototype 2 (LMP2) champions were decided a fortnight ago at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, the driver, team and manufacturer titles are still on the line in the Daytona Prototype international (DPi) and GT Daytona (GTD) classes.
Depending on which crown you’re talking about, DPi features a two- or three-way battle for the hardware. The manufacturer title is a straight fight between Cadillac and Acura, with the top finisher taking the title. Team- and driver-wise, it’s more complicated.
The No. 7 Acura Team Penske and drivers Helio Castroneves and Ricky Taylor enjoy a two-point advantage over the No. 10 Konica Minolta Cadillac and Ryan Briscoe and Renger van der Zande, with the No. 31 Whelen Engineering Racing Cadillac and Pipo Derani nine points out of the lead. Should the No. 7 Acura and No. 10 Cadillac finish in the top two spots, the higher-placed team and drivers will take the titles.
It gets complicated should both cars finish further down the DPi order. Indeed, there are several scenarios where they could finish with equal points. However, with four wins to their credit this season, Castroneves, Taylor and the No. 7 own the tiebreakers.
In contrast, the calculations for the No. 31 and Derani are simple: To have a chance at the team and driver championships, they must follow the advice of the late Al Davis, founder of the NFL’s Las Vegas (previously Oakland-Los Angeles-and-Oakland-again) Raiders and “just win, baby” – then hope the Acura Penske finishes out of the top five and the Konica Minolta Cadillac fifth or lower.
The GTD team championship finds the No. 86 Meyer Shank Racing with Curb-Agajanian Acura NSX GT3 enjoying, by comparison, a hefty seven-point lead over rival Porsche’s No. 16 Wright Motorsports entry, with Lexus’ No. 14 AIM Vasser Sullivan entry 10 markers out of the top spot. Similarly, Meyer Shank’s Mario Farnbacher and Matt McMurry are seven points up on Wright Motorsports’ Patrick Long and Ryan Hardwick in the reckoning for the driver title. However, owing to lineup shuffles earlier in the season, AIM Vasser Sullivan’s Aaron Telitz is just eight points back of Farnbacher and McMurry. The GTD manufacturer battle is also a three-way contest, one where Acura (269) holds a slim two-point lead over Lexus, with Porsche (256) a distant third.
While many a driver will be moving on to greener, or at least different, pastures at season’s end, Sebring will mark particularly poignant transitions for two of the most successful race drivers of the 21st century: Oliver Gavin and Helio Castroneves. Having earlier revealed he will not have a full-time ride with Corvette Racing in 2021, Sebring marks the conclusion of 18 remarkable seasons for Gavin. In that time, the lanky Brit won no fewer than five IMSA championships and captured more than 50 race victories, including five Petit Le Mans class wins, five class wins in the 24 Hours of Le Mans and, with co-driver Tommy Milner, the first win for the new Corvette C8.R this year in the Cadillac Grand Prix of Sebring.
Saturday also brings the curtain down on 21 historically successful seasons for Castroneves at Team Penske, during which he became one of the most prolific IndyCar drivers in team history with 30 victories. Along with three wins and four poles at the Indianapolis 500, the ebullient Brazilian notched a couple IMSA wins including the 2008 Motul Petit Le Mans (in LMP2) and the first DPi win for Acura Team Penske at Mid-Ohio in 2018 – not to mention four victories this season.
For all Castroneves has achieved, however, the four-time IndyCar championship bridesmaid has never won a title for Roger Penske. Taking the narrow lead in the DPi standings to Sebring, Castroneves (with more than a little help from friend and co-driver Ricky Taylor) could change that and, in the bargain, write a storybook finish to his career at Penske before he moves on to a part-time IndyCar role next season with Meyer Shank Racing.