DAYTONA BEACH, Florida – Helio Castroneves’ transition from Indy cars to sports cars nearly began with a pole position Thursday at Daytona International Speedway.
Castroneves was leading qualifying for the Rolex 24 At Daytona and prepared to celebrate when Renger van der Zande edged Castroneves’ fastest lap by just 0.007 of a second.
“I did everything I could,” Castroneves said. “Unfortunately, just got beat by .007 seconds. Nothing you can do about that. It’s OK, though. We looked strong. The guys are going to have to fix a couple of things on the car because I was pushing it really hard.”
Castroneves and teammates Graham Rahal and Ricky Taylor will start second when the green flag flies on the annual 24-hour endurance race Saturday afternoon. The race is the first in Castroneves’ transition from full-time competitor in the Verizon IndyCar Series to the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship.
It also marked the return of Roger Penske’s team to sports car racing with two cars in the headline Prototype category – the No. 7 Acura Team Penske Acura DPi shared by Castroneves, Rahal and Taylor, along with the No. 6 Acura shared by Simon Pagenaud, Juan Pablo Montoya and Dane Cameron, who qualified the car 10th.
Rahal and Pagenaud are driving the Rolex 24 as one-offs while retaining their respective full-time Verizon IndyCar Series rides with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing and Team Penske. Castroneves will return to Indy cars in May with Team Penske for the INDYCAR Grand Prix and Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Montoya, a two-time Indy 500 winner, currently has no announced plans to return to compete in “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”
Castroneves pulled into the pits Thursday after his fastest lap – 1 minute, 36.090 seconds – and got out of the car to watch the remaining qualifiers finish their final laps. The three-time Indianapolis 500 winner was surrounded by cameras when van der Zande’s time of 1:36.083 flashed on the scoreboard.
“But we are starting on the front row, which is a pretty big deal,” Castroneves said. “It’s a good start for our team. We have a lot of things to learn still, but really happy for Acura Team Penske and all of the guys. We’ve worked hard to get to this point and we have a few more practices to fine tune it for Saturday.”
Van der Zande shares the No. 10 Wayne Taylor Racing Cadillac DPi-V.R with 2012 Verizon IndyCar Series champion and 2014 Indianapolis 500 winner Ryan Hunter-Reay.
“I’m super thrilled to be in this seat,” said van der Zande, the 31-year-old Dutchman who won the IMSA Prototype Challenge championship in 2016. “I’ve come quite a long way in the last few years.”
Castroneves wasn’t the only driver with INDYCAR connections to qualify well. Tristan Vautier, who has 31 Verizon IndyCar Series races as well as the 2011 Pro Mazda and 2012 Indy Lights championships on his resume, qualified fifth-fastest in the No. 90 Spirit of Daytona Racing Cadillac DPi.
Fernando Alonso’s follow-up to his run at the Indianapolis 500 last year didn’t go as well as planned. The two-time Formula One champion qualified 13th in the No. 23 United Autosports Ligier LMP2 in the Prototype class.
The car was repaired after an incident in practice earlier in the day, but Alonso indicated it wasn’t an issue.
“The damage this morning was more aesthetics than anything else,” Alonso said. “It was a little kiss on the wall.”
Defending GT Le Mans class winners Sebastien Bourdais, Joey Hand and Dirk Muller will start second in class and 19th overall after Hand recorded a lap of 1:42.798 in the No. 66 Ford Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GT. Jan Magnussen, the former Formula 1 driver who also competed in 11 Indy car races in 1995 and ’99, won the GTLM pole in the No. 3 Corvette Racing Corvette C7.R.
Jack Hawksworth, who has 49 Verizon IndyCar Series races on his resume, qualified fourth in the GT Daytona class. He shares the No. 15 Lexus RC F GT3 with Dominik Farnbacher, David Heinemeier Hansson and 57-year-old sports car legend Scott Pruett, whose 32-year career included 145 races and two Indy car victories.
Six drivers in the Rolex field – Pagenaud, Montoya, Hunter-Reay, Bourdais, Scott Dixon and Scott Sharp – have won Indy car championships. Twenty-five drivers in the Rolex 24 have at least one Indy car race to their credit.
The race will begin Saturday at 2:40 p.m. ET. Live coverage on FOX starts at 2 p.m.