Castroneves, Taylor and Alexander Rossi finished the Sebring 12 Hours only eighth, after their #7 Acura ARX-05 needed a turbo intercooler changed early in the race, initially losing them 11 laps.
Through pace and strategy they clawed back four of those laps, but their true guardian angel was the #77 Mazda of Oliver Jarvis, which collided with the car of Penske’s prime title rival, Wayne Taylor Racing, resulting in the #10 Cadillac losing several laps and dropping to seventh.
With Taylor/Castroneves having entered the race with a two-point edge in the championship, finishing only one place behind WTR’s Renger van der Zande and Ryan Briscoe was enough to see the Penske pair take the IMSA Prototype title just a year after their teammates Dane Cameron and Juan Pablo Montoya achieved the same feat.
As well as Sebring marking the end of Penske’s three-year Acura Prototype program it also marked the final race at the fabled team for Castroneves, after 21 years, 30 IndyCar race wins including three Indianapolis 500s and six IMSA wins. Yet until tonight, Castroneves had never clinched a championship with Penske – nor, indeed, any for himself since a Brazilian kart title in 1989 (see table below).
The 45-year-old veteran – who will compete in six IndyCar races for Meyer Shank Racing next year – was understandably emotional by the end of the Sebring 12 Hours, as he saw his Penske career come to an end in triumph as Taylor drove the Acura to the checkered flag. He was sobbing and he was still tearful as he and Taylor spoke to NBCSN.
“You know, [Penske president Tim] Cindric was like, ‘Don’t cry!’ and I said, ‘Look, you don’t know what’s going on – there’s so much in my mind!
“Obviously, I can’t thank enough this guy here, what an incredible kid and incredible man, incredible driver. So for me to be able to finish with a championship for an incredible organization, amazing group of people…. Like I said, friends, true friends that last forever. It’s a new beginning for me but I’ll never, ever forget this.
“So I can’t thank enough everyone at Acura Team Penske and this guy here and Roger of course. Thanks RP, because obviously, it’s been an incredible journey, an incredible journey for sure.”
Taylor, who has been paired with Castroneves throughout the last three years of IMSA competition but will move back to his father Wayne Taylor’s team as it switches from Cadillac to Acura in 2021, said that helping Castroneves to a championship had become as important to him as clinching a second Prototype championship for himself.
“It was everything!” said one of the most accomplished Prototype drivers of the past 10 years. “After all he’s done for Team Penske and he’s been there for 20 years – to me, Helio is Team Penske!
“It was the privilege of a lifetime to get to drive for Acura Team Penske and to have the best three years of my career. And to be able to contribute to Helio’s amazing career, not having a championship yet, losing by a point one time…. To win it with him was one of the highlights of my life. We’ll be friends for life.”
After he had been given a hug from outgoing IMSA champion, teammate and fellow ex-IndyCar ace Montoya, Castroneves was asked if he could have written a better fairytale ending to his time with Penske.
“No, no question,” he said, fighting back tears once more. “I get emotional because it’s so many years, putting this thing together, and finishing like this – not finishing but ending, you know? It’s absolutely incredible, a blessing. I just can’t thank this guy enough, and my family, and my wife and kids, and my mom and dad.
“I fell in love with this sport because it feels incredible. Excuse me now. Sorry, just thinking about so many ups and downs.
“As RP says, you lose more than you win and finally, when you clinch one, it’s special. And this one, no question, is going to be in my memory forever.”
Helio's long path to championship glory
Data provided by TracksideOnline