You’ve heard the adage, “It’s a long race – anything can happen.”
That’s what Helio Castroneves was counting on after two pit miscues in the opening 30 minutes dropped the No. 7 Team Penske Acura ARX-05 nearly two laps down in Saturday’s TireRack.com Grand Prix at Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta.
Undaunted, Castroneves and Ricky Taylor pressed on in an otherwise incident-free run to score their second consecutive IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship victory in dramatic fashion, while misfortune struck many of the other contenders.
“We’ve been fighting back all year, and today was just a synopsis of our season,” said Taylor. “We came back from a complete nightmare.
“Mistakes are going to happen. I told my brother [Jordan], ‘Helio’s angry now – look out!’ Man, he fought back so hard. Good thing it was not a (sprint) race, though …”
The six-hour enduro came down to a two-lap shootout following an incident that eliminated the No. 6 Acura of Juan Pablo Montoya and Dane Cameron, and the No. 63 WeatherTech Ferrari 488 GT3 Evo of Toni Vilander.
Mazda’s Harry Tincknell charged from an 8.326s deficit to close to within 5.374s of Castroneves when Vilander went off after light contact with Tristan Vautier’s Cadillac, then came back on and hit Montoya’s stopped Acura, which also made contact with Vautier while trying to avoid the Ferrari.
Track crews hustled to clear the track for two more laps of green flag racing.
“I just wanted to make sure I had good, clean tires and good brakes,” Castroneves said of the final restart. That’s exactly what we did. In the beginning, we had (nailed) the start, so I knew exactly what we needed to do. But if the No. 55 was ready to create a battle, it would have been a big one. No way was I going to give up anything.”
Castroneves took the checkered flag .983s ahead of the Mazda.
An incident on the final pit stops took two contenders out of contention, when Ryan Briscoe rear-ended Montoya at the pit entrance while running 1-2. Briscoe was driving the Rolex 24 At Daytona-winning No. 10 Konica Minolta Cadillac DPi-V.R – entering the race with the DPi points lead – while defending IMSA champion Montoya and co-driver Dane Cameron were looking for their first podium of the season.
“He brake-checked us,” a frustrated car owner Wayne Taylor said of the incident. “That ruined our race.”
The 2019 Motul Petit Le Mans-winning No. 31 Whelen Engineering Cadillac was running second when Pipo Derani closed the door in the esses on Spencer Pumpelly with just under two hours remaining. That sent the No. 44 GRT Magnus Lamborghini Huracan GT3 through a tire stack and into the wall.
Pumpelly was unhurt, but the car was eliminated, and Derani served a penalty for incident responsibility, seemingly dropping the Cadillac from contention, although Nasr fought back to finish third, 2.067s back.
Mazda seemed poised to dominate the second half of the event. Tristan Nunez took the lead in the No. 77 Mazda DPi with 2h22m remaining, and took charge of the race, pulling away to a 12s lead. While the fourth caution of the race allowed the field to close in, Nunez was able to pull away on the restart, and seemed to have matters in hand when he pitted with 1h26m remaining, reporting brake trouble. Oliver Jarvis strapped in, but both front and rear bodywork came off and the Mazda spent 43 laps in the pits.
Connor De Phillippi rebounded from an early incident to win in GTLM, co-driving the No. 25 Team RLL BMW M8 GTE with Bruno Spengler. Tommy Milner took second in the No. 4 Corvette C8.R co-driven by Oliver Gavin. Milner also had early problems, shredding a tire after contact early in the race, dropping him nearly a lap down, and only rebounded into contention in the final hour. He finished second, 4.383s back, followed by Jesse Krohn in the No. 24 BMW and Nick Tandy in the No. 911 Porsche 911 RSR-19.
Shortly after the midway point, the No. 912 Porsche 911 RSR-19 went from the GTLM lead to three laps down when Laurens Vanthoor pitted under green and the team changed brakes. That cost them three laps, and a chance for victory.
Mario Farnbacher scored a solid GTD victory for the No. 86 Meyer Shank Racing with Curb-Agajanian Acura NSX GT3, co-driving with Matt McMurry and Shinya Michimi – the first victory for the team in 2020.
“Today was definitely a good release,” said Farnbacher, scoring his eighth IMSA victory. “We’ve definitely been close. We had bad luck at the Rolex 24, but worked on details, and it paid results right now. Today, our pit crew was the key to success.”
Bryan Sellers placed second, 2.451s back, in the No. 48 Paul Miller Racing Lamborghini Huracan GT3 co-driven by Madison Snow and Corey Lewis. Completing the GTD podium was the No. 16 Wright Motorsports Porsche 911 GT3 R of Patrick Long, Ryan Hardwick and Jan Heylen.
In LMP2, Patrick Kelly, Simon Trummer and Scott Huffaker led virtually all the way in the No. 52 PR1 Mathiasen Motorsports ORECA LMP2-Gibson. The only other entry in the class, the No. 18 Era Motorsports entry of Dwight Merriman, Kyle Tilley and Colin Braun, lost nearly an hour for repairs after contact while attempting to avoid the spinning Acura DPi of Dane Cameron while taking the green flag.
UP NEXT: The WeatherTech Championship next visits Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course on Sept. 26, for the Acura Sports Car Challenge.