Scott McLaughlin has moved one step closer to clinching his maiden Supercars Championship title with victory in an incident-filled opening race of the season-ending Newcastle 500.
The DJR Team Penske driver notched up his eighth race win of the season to move into a 78-point lead in his championship battle with Red Bull Holden Racing Team’s Jamie Whincup. His hopes for a seventh Drivers’ Championship title took a seemingly terminal hit after he came off worse in an opening-lap clash with Michael Caruso’s Nissan.
Coming into the final round of the season with a 30-point lead over McLaughlin, Whincup cut a worried figure after qualifying behind McLaughlin, who stormed to an unprecedented fifteenth pole position of the season.
Disaster then struck on the opening lap of the race when he and Michael Caruso came together a Turn 3 after trying to follow teammate Shane van Gisbergen down the inside of the Nissan driver at the left-hander. Whincup ran side-by-side with Caruso on the run to Turn 4, but his path forward was closed when Caruso turned in on the Holden driver, breaking a steering arm. Whincup then slid helplessly into the wall to further compound his woes.
He managed to limp back to the pits, but as the chasing field tried to work their way around the stricken car, a multi-car pile-up occurred among the backmarkers at Turn 8, which featured Dale Wood (Erebus Motorsport), Taz Douglas (Lucas Dumbrell Motorsport), Tim Blanchard (Brad Jones Racing) and Jason Bright (Prodrive). Douglas and Bright were early retirees as a result of the accident.
The Safety Car was called, prompting most of the field to make the first of two anticipated pit stops over the 250-kilometre race. Whincup’s car was sidelined in the garage while it underwent urgent repairs; he would eventually emerge and finish 13 laps down in 21st position to keep the championship fight open for Sunday’s race, however McLaughlin will need to finish eleventh or higher to guarantee he claims the title.
The pits stops dramatically shuffled the order, and when racing resumed David Reynolds (Erebus Motorsport) held the effective race lead from a battling van Gisbergen and McLaughlin.
McLaughlin was unable to find a way by his New Zealand compatriot until the final cycle of pit stops, and once released he quickly set about closing down Reynolds, whose Holden was struggling with a lack of rear-end grip.
An eventual mistake from Reynolds proved to be all the invitation McLaughlin needed to steal the race lead which he would hold to the flag, while the displaced Reynolds proved to be a major player in a dramatic battle for the remaining podium positions.
Reynolds found himself under attack by van Gisbergen, but the Red Bull Holden driver was too ambitious trying to dive up the inside of Reynolds at Turn 8. The predictable contact turfed a furious Reynolds into the wall, while the Race Stewards handed van Gisbergen a 15-second time penalty for his troubles.
That handed second place to McLaughlin’s teammate Fabian Coulthard, while Tim Slade (Brad Jones Racing) finished third to complete the rostrum thanks to a canny pit strategy and some forceful driving of his own.
Slade was one of the few drivers not to pit during the opening-lap Safety Car incident, vaulting him to the lead of the race as he ran an off-sequence pit strategy. After his final pit stop he was in sixth place, and caught up to the scrap between van Coulthard, van Gisbergen and surprise performer Simona de Silvestro.
Like Slade, de Silverstro used a smart strategy call from the Nissan garage to get valuable track position. The Swiss driver delayed her pit stop under the opening Safety Car by a lap to avoid congestion in the pit lane and vaulted up the order to be running in the top ten. Her pace thereafter was excellent, battling all race long with the championship frontrunners and she looked on course to claim a certain top-five finish, if not a possible podium.
That all came undone when Coulthard and van Gisbergen made minor contact at the hairpin on Lap 78; de Silvestro looked to take advantage of the drama by trying to pass around the outside at Turn 12 but Slade put his Holden up the inside and succeeded in tipping her into the wall. After pitting for repairs, she emerged to finish in 20th place and cut a frustrated figure in the paddock after the race.
The drama promoted Lee Holdsworth (CS Racing) to fourth ahead of the battle-scarred Reynolds, while Chaz Mostert (Prodrive) came home in sixth ahead of Mobil 1 HSV Racing’s Scott Pye, Nick Percat (Brad Jones Racing), Will Davison (TEKNO Autosport) and Rick Kelly (Nissan). The penalised van Gisbergen was classified in sixteenth.
Images via DJR Team Penske and Nissan Motorsport