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Acura Team Penske, Wayne Taylor Racing keep trading punches at Sebring

Sebring 12 Hours qualifying

#7 Acura Team Penske Acura DPi, DPi: Ricky Taylor, Motul Pole Award

LAT Images

The top two contenders in the premier division of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship were 1-2 in the same order for Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring qualifying Friday, setting up a fierce 12-hour battle for the DPi title at Sebring International Raceway.

Ricky Taylor captured the pole position for Acura Team Penske with a 1-minute, 46.874-second lap around the 17-turn, 3.74-mile road course, beating Renger van der Zande of Wayne Taylor Racing (1:47.125).

Penske’s No. 7 Acura, which is being driven at Sebring by Taylor, Helio Castroneves and Alexander Rossi, will enter Saturday’s season finale leading the championship by two points over the No. 10 Cadillac that is bring piloted by van der Zande, Ryan Briscoe and Scott Dixon.

The championship contenders have spent the past two days at Sebring trading best times with van der Zande setting the quick time Thursday while Castroneves and Rossi also paced morning and afternoon practices.

QUALIFYING RESULTS: Full field rundown l Breakdown by class

SEBRING DETAILS: How to watch the 12-hour season in finale on NBCSN, NBC

With Sebring’s annual endurance classic being held in November instead of its traditional mid-March date, the race will feature more laps under darkness than ever in its 68-year history, and Taylor was relieved after pacing Thursday night practice over the Cadillacs, whose track record and pace at Sebring is formidable.

IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship

#7 Acura Team Penske Acura DPi, DPi: Ricky Taylor, Motul Pole Award

LAT Images

“On these bumpy tracks, the Cadillacs are very strong, and having driven the 10 car before at Sebring, I know it’s always good at night,” said Taylor, who raced for his father’s No. 10 team before joining Penske in 2018. “This year, we’re going to have a lot of night time (racing), and so I just don’t think we can rest. I think we showed a lot of pace in night practice yesterday.

“I think the track changes so much, you’re just going to have to adapt on the fly, whether it’s changes inside the car, tire pressure, whether it’s nose changes or whatever the team can do, you’re just going to have to make sure you keep up with it all the way through and have that track position with a couple hours to go.

“The way the practice went, we definitely haven’t looked so great. We came to the track thinking we were pretty refined after being here already once this year (for a July 18 race). But yeah, this time of the year with the wind and all that’s going on, it’s thrown a bit of a curveball at everybody. So I think it’s forced everyone to adapt. I think difficult is good. I think difficult is going to make everybody work harder.”

In a team release, van der Zande was optimistic. “That’s a great start, being on the front row,” he said. “It’s going to be a long race. Qualifying isn’t that important for a long race, but it shows where you are in terms of the speed of the car compared to the others.”

The wildly different conditions are just one of many storylines to follow. Of the full-time drivers in the top two cars in DPi, only Castroneves has announced his 2021 plans. Briscoe and van der Zande are out of full-time rides as WTR moves next season to Acura, the manufacturer it’s trying to beat for its swan song with Cadillac. Ricky Taylor is believed to be a strong candidate to return to his father’s team in the switch next year.

Also in the mix for the title is the No. 31 Cadillac of Pipo Derani, Felipe Nasr and Gabby Chaves that is nine points out of the lead and also could claim the crown with a victory and some help. Taylor, who was involved in a memorable fight for the lead with Derani at the Petit Le Mans, said that “as dramatic as it is between the top two, you just throw the 31 in there, and it is a 12 hour at the most difficult track in the world as far as reliability. I think anything can happen.”

“It’s just such an amazing way to end a championship,” Ricky Taylor said. “If you’re a fan, you want it to come down to the last race and whoever wins the race, wins the championship, and I don’t think you could have scripted it any better, and to be racing against the 10 car of all teams, it’s really weird. But it’s fun, I wouldn’t rather be racing against anyone else.

“To start a 12 hour literally next to the championship contender is pretty intense. I think it’s going to be a case of not relaxing and not taking the pressure off and full focus for the whole race. We have to manage our race and control it as best we can.”

In qualifying for other divisions

--GTD: Entering the finale seven points out of the lead, the No. 16 Porsche 911 GT3R of Wright Motorsports qualified first with driver Jan Heylen, seven spots ahead of the No. 86 Acura of Meyer Shank Racing with Cub-Agajanian that leads the championship.

--GTLM: Already having clinched the championship, Antonio Garcia won the pole position for Corvette Racing’s No. 3 C8.R with a track-record 1:55.456 lap that bested the field by over a half-second.

“It was a perfect lap,” Garcia said. “We gambled on something different, and it seems to be working. ... I’ve always enjoyed this race. Since we found out about the date change, I knew that finishing at Sebring would have been very tough. Fighting for a championship at such a hard event would have been difficult. I’m glad we got it out of the way.”

--LMP2: Patrick Kelly put the PR1 Mathiasen Motorsports ORECA LMP2 07 on top with a lap of 1:51.373.