As three of his title rivals tripped up, Jamie Whincup’s victory at Pukekohe means the Supercars season finale in Newcastle shapes as a two-horse race.
It was a weekend of crashes, chaos and crazy weather across the ditch in New Zealand – and it’ll be forever remembered as a weekend where three championship contenders fell by the wayside thanks to being in the wrong place at the wrong time, some as innocent victims, others as repentant instigators.
But when the dust settled at Pukehoke on Sunday night, the Supercars title race was – effectively – one featuring two horses. Jamie Whincup and Scott McLaughlin, 30 points between them, and with everything on the line in the Newcastle season finale later this month.
With seven victories in 24 races and a staggering 14 pole positions, McLaughlin can be forgiven for thinking that in any other year, the title would already be his. But as a six-time Supercars champion, we know Whincup isn’t any other driver – and on Sunday, the Red Bull Holden Racing Team star showed why he’s been the series benchmark for so long. A coolly taken pole position in McLaughlin territory was converted into a superb start which – despite one moment after McLaughlin’s final pit stop just after half-distance that saw the Team Penske Ford a little too close for comfort – saw Whincup snare a third win for the season and stretch his advantage with just two races remaining.
It was the victory of a seasoned campaigner who didn’t panic, one of a driver who knows how to deliver when the year gets to the pointy end, and one that owed itself to metronomic speed and consistency, refusing to allow McLaughlin, who looked the quicker of the pair, a single chance.
“I got off the line well and then just pushed on, just pushed it,” Whincup said after he took possession of the coveted Jason Richards Trophy for the most points accumulated over the weekend.
“I turned the rear vision mirror around and just went as hard as I could for 70 laps. The car was great.”
Whincup’s pole was, remarkably, just his second of the season (the other came at Symmons Plains way back in Race 4), and while he eked out his advantage to a five-second win, he knows there’s plenty to do in Newcastle against a formidable opponent with car speed to burn, McLaughlin having little to lose as he chases his maiden title.
“We are feeling the pressure of performance, those guys have got more performance on us without a doubt, but all we can do is maximise our set-up,” Whincup said.
“I feel we did that today and gave ourselves an opportunity to get the grand prize, but as I can’t stress enough it’s only an opportunity, no more than that. It’s all going to come down to what job we do in three weeks’ time.”
If it felt like Whincup and McLaughlin spent much of the weekend glued to one another, you’d be right; in Saturday’s 70-lapper, it was McLaughlin third with Whincup in close pursuit as the pair crossed the line in a race won by J-Dub’s RBHRT teammate, Shane van Gisbergen.
‘The Giz’ came into his home weekend relaxed after a week at mum and dad’s in Auckland, and picked up where he left off at Pukekohe last year with a well-taken win in Race 23 that owed itself partly to a brilliant start that saw him third by the first corner after starting sixth, and partly due to being ideally placed when a safety car period on lap 32 played into his favour in the second phase of pit stops.
With an opportunity to claim his first victory since Race 10 at Winton, SVG didn’t need to be asked twice, beating Prodrive’s Mark Winterbottom by just under a second to fan the embers of his championship defence – and did an epic post-race celebratory burnout that he called a “proper job”.
“On the cool-down lap I couldn’t remember the last time I won, so I thought ‘stuff it, I’m going to do a burnout’,” he said.
“Unfortunately it did some damage, the guard got wrecked and the motor got a little hot.”
It was a win worth celebrating on Saturday, but Sunday was a more sombre story for SVG as he finished 14 laps down in 24th position, courtesy of a lap 16 shunt coming into pit lane when he ran into the back of Tim Slade (Brad Jones Racing) after trying in vain to slow his car down under brakes.
The resultant damage saw Van Gisbergen trapped in the pits as the team frantically worked on getting his dented Commodore back into the fray, and, plenty of elbow grease, the odd hammer and rolls of tape later, he re-joined and managed to pick up 33 points to help in the teams’ championship race. But falling to fifth overall, 276 points behind Whincup with two races and a maximum 300 points on offer, means SVG’s title defence is as good as over.
“I made a mistake coming into pit lane behind Tim, he was quite cautious, which he’s allowed to be, and I misjudged it,” SVG ruefully said.
“It would’ve been fine if he wasn’t there, but he just over-slowed and I couldn’t stop in time and ran up the back of him causing a lot of damage. I’m gutted for us to lose so many points for our Teams Championship which is so important to us. The team were awesome though, to fix the car like that in the amount of time we needed to be classified. The car was pretty mangled, so the amount of work they did in the short time they had was pretty great.”
SVG was one of three drivers who came to NZ in the title chase, but left with the dreaded asterisk of “in mathematical contention” next to their names with two races remaining.
McLaughlin’s teammate Fabian Coulthard, who led the standings after Bathurst, finished Saturday’s Race 23 upside down against the fence at the last corner after a scary incident with David Reynolds’ Commodore in the closing stages, and while he battled to fifth on Sunday, he’s 176 points off the lead in third place with 300 remaining.
And it wasn’t just the Kiwi contenders who had their title dreams knocked off the tracks at Pukekohe; Prodrive’s Chaz Mostert was given a drive-through penalty for triggering the Reynolds-Coulthard incident on Saturday and finished 23rd, and while a fightback to seventh from the back on Sunday after an early-race clash with stablemates Winterbottom and Cameron Waters was as meritorious as the incident was controversial, it left Mostert in fourth overall, 264 points off the lead and, realistically out of it.
The third member of the Triple Eight trio, TeamVortex’s Craig Lowndes, had his strongest overall weekend since Ipswich in July with eighth place from 10th on the grid on Saturday after a strong recovery from being tagged by Jason Bright early and dropping to the back.
Fourth from 12th at the start 24 hours later, which Lowndes was quick to attribute to his team for a slick strategy, saw him retain sixth overall in the standings.
Newcastle (November 24-26) is next and last, with a brand-new track providing no advantage to anyone, and offering nowhere to hide as the Whincup v McLaughlin title fight reaches its crescendo. Can the hunted repel the hunter in The Hunter? We can’t wait to find out.
By Matthew Clayton for redbull.com