By Mark Robinson
He’s a past winner at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course and was fastest in practice Saturday for the Acura Sports Car Challenge, but that doesn’t mean Helio Castroneves is overflowing with overconfidence heading into Sunday’s qualifying and race sessions.
The reason for Castroneves’ guarded optimism is two-fold: the constantly changing track conditions and the evenly matched competition in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship field.
Driving the No. 7 Acura Team Penske Acura ARX-05 DPi that he shares with Ricky Taylor, Castroneves put down the best lap of the final practice – and best of the weekend to date – at one minute, 11.395 seconds (113.856 mph). It was nearly two full seconds better than the lap that teammate Juan Pablo Montoya clocked as fastest on Friday in the sister No. 6 Acura, evidence of the rapidly changing and improving condition of the 2.258-mile, 13-turn road course.
But with three Daytona Prototype international (DPi) competitors – Renger van der Zande in the championship-leading No. 10 Konica Minolta Cadillac DPi-V.R, Montoya in the No. 6 Acura and Pipo Derani in the No. 31 Whelen Engineering Racing Cadillac – all lurking within a half-second of Castroneves in Saturday’s practice, the Brazilian is taking nothing for granted.
"At this point it seems to be so close," said Castroneves, who teamed with Taylor at Mid-Ohio in 2018 to deliver Acura’s first DPi victory. "Every lap you go, the track gets a little bit better. The toughest part for the engineers, for the teams and for the drivers is every lap (the track) changes."
Even though he’s been racing at Mid-Ohio for more than two decades – first in Indy cars and more recently in the WeatherTech Championship – the 45-year-old Castroneves said he’s always learning the nuances of the track that’s chameleon-like in its constant fluctuations.
"This place, it’s not about horsepower, it’s not about in terms of aerodynamics," he said. "It’s about a combination of what the engineers are putting together and obviously the drivers. It’s a flow track.
"Every corner, it’s braking and turning and up and down. It’s a flow place, so even for a veteran or experienced person, you’ve got to get that flow because every year it changes, every time it changes. Right now, I’m extremely excited to be in the front of the field at this point, but tomorrow everything can change. We’ve just got to be prepared to react for those unexpected situations."
In other class results from Saturday’s practice, the Corvette Racing stable continued setting the pace in GT Le Mans (GTLM). Jordan Taylor in the No. 3 Chevrolet Corvette C8.R was tops with a lap of 1:18.668 (103.330 mph), 0.26 seconds ahead of Oliver Gavin in the No. 4 Corvette.
In GT Daytona (GTD), the defending race winner No. 14 AIM Vasser Sullivan Lexus RC F GT3 was quick at 1:20.465 (101.022 mph) with Aaron Telitz at the wheel. The No. 12 AIM Vasser Sullivan Lexus was second, Frankie Montecalvo coming within 0.289 seconds of Telitz.
Qualifying to set the 24-entry starting grid begins at 8 a.m. ET Sunday and streams live on IMSA.com. The two-hour, 40-minute race streams live at 2 p.m. Sunday on the NBC Sports App, NBCSports.com and TrackPass on NBC Sports Gold. Television coverage airs at 11 p.m. ET Sunday on NBCSN.