BRASELTON, Ga. – It came down to the final few corners of the final lap, but the road to the championship was far more winding than that.
The people behind the No. 31 Whelen Engineering Racing Cadillac DPi-V.R and its run to the Daytona Prototype international (DPi) class title navigated the wax and wane of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season with some timely victories and a wild ending.
It began with a win in the Motul Pole Award 100 qualifying race for the Rolex 24 At Daytona in January. It ended with a bumpy, runner-up finish Saturday at Motul Petit Le Mans. In between, it included everything imaginable.
“You can see it in my face,” a tearful Pipo Derani said in a postrace interview Saturday night at Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta. “It was such a difficult beginning of the year after the difficult finish last year. I went through such a low.”
Just weeks after Derani and Nasr lost their shot at the 2020 championship in the season finale at Sebring, they started from the pole for the Rolex 24, the 2021 season opener.
The race, however, provided more heartbreak, as a mechanical problem cost the No. 31 Cadillac precious time and triumph with a seventh-place finish in DPi. Winless and 157 points out of the DPi lead halfway through the season, doubts outside the Action Express camp were rising. The team recovered with crucial wins later in the season – at the second Watkins Glen race, Road America and Long Beach – to reach striking distance in the championship standings.
When Nasr won the pole at Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta on Friday, the No. 31 – with Mike Conway on board as the endurance specialist – was just nine points behind the No. 10 Konica Minolta Acura ARX-05 co-driven by Ricky Taylor, Filipe Albuquerque and Alexander Rossi in the championship battle.
The best finisher in the race, then, would be the champion. Sounded simple, but it was anything but.
As Nasr led Taylor into Turn 10A on the final lap, Taylor sent the No. 10. His flying run led to contact and a bumpy ride through the gravel trap and grass. Taylor emerged on track in front of Nasr, who had the momentum to regain the lead heading into the final turn.
“Why does it have to be so hard in the final corner?” Nasr said afterward. “I saw the (No.) 10 make a very late move and I knew he wasn’t going to make the corner. I just focused on getting through the exit clean and getting to the finish line.”
Taylor, who finished 0.405 seconds behind Nasr, was gracious in defeat.
“The championship literally came down to the last corner,” Taylor said. “After last year, I’m happy for those guys. They deserve it; they had a great year.”
The championship translated into trophies: the drivers’ championship for Nasr and Derani, a team championship for Action Express Racing and a manufacturers’ title for Cadillac. And a touch of disbelief.
“I just can’t believe we’re champions,” Derani said. “It was such a difficult end to last season and a difficult beginning to this year. With a lot of belief in God, and in my family, I rebuilt my trust and here I am, a 2021 IMSA champion.”