The final race of the year and our last chance for a big win in 2018 came last weekend at Road Atlanta.
Petit Le Mans is one of my favorite events of the year and one of the most intense and challenging events on our calendar.
If the Daytona 24 Hour has its prestige and speed, the Sebring 12 hour has its bumps and history, and the Watkins Glen 6 hour has danger and commitment, then Petit Le Mans has relentlessness and intensity.
Every time we race at Petit Le Mans we are reminded of how every lap makes a difference, each GT overtake requires focus and timing, all the small details add up there, and the sum of those little bits are what make it so difficult to find victory.
This year I think it was apparent for many different teams how it can be a battle of the details.
Helio and I were one again joined by our awesome endurance teammate, Graham Rahal, on the No. 7 Acura this weekend.
The team had done some testing at Road Atlanta and we felt very confident going into the weekend that we could put together a strong race performance.
As the weekend progressed it was apparent the cars to beat would be the light weight Mazdas that appeared to be very nice on the tires, and also the ESM Nissans who were coming off of a win at Laguna Seca and have shown a ton of speed down the long back straight.
We felt like we were fighting with the Cadillacs in the daytime but hopefully our car would come alive at night.
Qualifying came around and we ended up qualifying P5 behind the Nissans and Mazdas. I don’t feel like I got the most out of the car in qualifying as we caught traffic on two of our best laps. Regardless it would have been very tough to fight for the pole.
In preparation for the race, Graham, Helio, and I would basically triple stint the entire race with me only driving the beginning and end and the two of them sharing the heavy load in the daytime.
At the start of the race we settled into fourth place over the first stint and inherited third from the lead Nissan after having a tire go down. Just to show how hard this race is, it took that car (which was the fastest on track) almost 8 hours to get back in a realistic fighting position.
We managed to save a lot of fuel on that first stint and due to some great pit work by the No. 7 guys, we beat out the No. 77 Mazda on the first stop.
At this point we were up to second and the car was feeling great. Unfortunately, a yellow came out towards the end of that stint for Montoya in the 6 car in turn three. During that pit cycle, the boys did it again and got us into the lead ahead of the No. 55 Mazda.
We led up until the next stop where we did the driver change to Helio. Helio and Graham held the lead for almost their entire time in the car, and if they weren’t leading they were pressuring the leader all the time.
At this point in the race, we were in rhythm, everyone was executing, and the race was going to plan. One more stint for Helio and I would be back in for the finish.
With about two and a half hours to go we heard a penalty come over the radio for car 7.
The call was that we had passed under a local yellow. The call was extremely strong and unforgiving as Helio had cleared the accident scene before overtaking a slower GT car.
Unfortunately, the call had been made and the officials had made up their mind. We served our penalty which put us in a very difficult situation for the end of the race.
Following the penalty, we just tried to make something happen with strategy and going in a different direction as the others, but as it turned out the margin was just too large to make up with the way the final yellow flags fell.
The one silver lining on the day that was a nice ending was that the 10 car won in thrilling fashion, overtaking the 5 car on the final lap to take their first win of the year!
Although a fifth place finish was not what we were looking for this weekend, the team executed very well and we ran a solid race all the way through.
The pit stops were all super quick, nobody made mistakes and we had either led or fought for the lead all day which says a lot over 10 hours. I am so proud to be a part of Acura Team Penske this year and it has been one of the best years of my racing career so far.
It has always been a dream of mine to drive for this team and it has been more than I expected.
Getting to share the car with Helio this season, have Tim Cindric on our radio, and work with such a talented group of people on this team has been incredible.
We have all learned a lot and I cannot wait to take that knowledge into next season.