Jamie Whincup has joined the ranks of the all-time touring car greats by clinching his seventh – and perhaps most unlikely – Supercars Championship title with victory in Sunday’s season-ending Newcastle 500.
In scenes reminiscent of Lewis Hamilton and Felipe Massa’s tussle for the 2008 Formula 1 title, the Red Bull Holden Racing Team driver only knew of his championship fate after crossing the finish line when his chief title rival Scott McLaughlin was stripped of the eleventh placed finish he needed to claim a maiden title for himself.
It was fitting that one of the most closely contested seasons in Supercars history would throw up yet more drama in its final act. Whincup arrived into the final weekend of racing with a slender 30-point advantage over McLaughlin, and with a maximum of 300 points on offer it was going to be an exciting showdown.
While Saturday’s race was won by McLaughlin, it was a complete disaster for Whincup who finished last and 13 laps adrift after sustaining steering damage in a first-lap accident with Nissan’s Michael Caruso.
McLaughlin claimed an incredible sixteenth pole position of the season in Sunday’s Top-10 Shootout; Whincup could manage no better than fifth and would find himself starting among other runners who would give no quarter. They may not have been in the championship hunt, but everyone had their eyes on winning the final race of the season.
McLaughlin converted his pole position into the lead with Whincup’s teammate Shane van Gisbergen giving chase. The pair pitted at the end of Lap 15 and it was at this point where the championship fight was blown wide open.
McLaughlin was handed a drive-through penalty for speeding in the pit lane, dropping him to 22nd place once he had served it. Whincup, meanwhile, had climbed to third place from fifth after the first cycle of pit stops – if he won and McLaughlin finished twelfth or lower, a seventh title would be his.
McLaughlin set about recovering through the field and impressively climbed up to twelfth place behind Simona de Silvestrso.
After being robbed of a likely podium finish in yesterday’s race, the former IndyCar driver was again delivering another masterclass in street circuit racing with a succession of deft passes on unsuspecting rivals along the short chute between Turns 7 and 8.
McLaughlin came up on the back of the Nissan driver and tried an optimistic lunge on de Silvestro at Turn 2 that succeeded in tipping her into a spin and McLaughlin once again under the attention of the Race Stewards.
They rightly had little hesitation in handing him a 15-second time penalty to be served at his next pit stop. The DJR Team Penske driver made his second visit to the pits on Lap 50, with the penalty dropping him down to 23rd place and leaving him with it all to do once again.
Meanwhile, out at the front, van Gisbergen had moved into the lead with a neat pass on Erebus Motorsport’s David Reynolds. Whincup then managed to leapfrog Reynolds in the second round of pit stops.
McLaughlin’s slim hopes got a boost with a Safety Car interruption when Taz Douglas hit the wall; the accident serving to bunch the field and seemingly make the 24-year-old’s recovery a little easier.
At the restart, van Gisbergen backed off to allow his teammate into the lead and maximise his chance of being McLaughlin to the title.
McLaughlin had 45 laps left to get into the vital 11th place he needed to deny Whincup; he used the next green flag period to climb up to 13th place before the Safety Car was called again when James Courtney’s Holden shed parts at Turn 9.
When the race was restarted on Lap 73, only the two Garry Rogers Motorsport Holdens of Garth Tander and James Moffat stood between McLaughlin and the vital P11.
Unbelievably, more drama would ensue. McLaughlin found himself divebombed by Scott Pye at Turn 1 after the restart, which left the door open for Jason Bright to profit as well – Bright mounted the left rear of McLaughlin’s Ford and pushed bodywork on to McLaughlin’s tyre, threatening to puncture it.
Despite some light smoking, McLaughlin’s tyres held together. He withstood pressure from Craig Lowndes – notably a teammate to Whincup – but was able to resist and put himself between the two GRM drivers with a gutsy pass on Tander.
With two laps to go, it was becoming do or die for McLaughlin. His opportunity came with a brave pass on Moffat at the hairpin, but Lowndes followed him straight through and was threatening to spoil the party as the final lap of the race started.
There would be one final plot twist. As if to underscore how pressure can crack the best of drivers, McLaughlin slid fractionally wide through Turn 1 and gave Lowndes an invitation to get ahead on the uphill climb into Turn 2.
Lowndes had the momentum and was always going to make the move, but a desperate McLaughlin tried to fend him off, squeezing the Holden into the wall and destroying Lowndes’ steering.
Somehow he wasn’t hit at Turn 2 by an out of control Lowndes, but the expression in the DJR Team Penske garage said it all: they all but knew their man would be penalised for an impulsive piece of driving on a day when his usual discipline was sorely lacking.
As Whincup crossed the finish line, McLaughlin’s eleventh place would be enough to deny him a seventh championship title unless the stewards delivered the third penalty that McLaughlin would tragically find coming his way. Confirmation came seconds after McLaughlin crossed the finish line and he was dumped to 18th in the final classification.
While Whincup only claimed three race wins to McLaughlin’s eight all season, the veteran showed all of his nous by being a truly consistent points-scorer: he finished every one of the season’s 26 races and managed top-six finishes in 22 of them. Metronomic would barely be an adequate description.
As Whincup and van Gisbergen celebrated another 1-2 in the race ahead of Reynolds, there were also smiles at Nissan which managed to get Rick Kelly (4th), Michael Caruso (5th) and the retiring Todd Kelly (10th) into the top ten. Were it not for McLaughlin’s divebomb on de Silvestro, the team likely would have claimed the best result of its season.
Nick Percat finished sixth for Brad Jones Racing ahead of Prodrive’s Mark Winterbottom, Lee Holdsworth (Preston Hire Racing) and Will Davison (Tekno Autosports).
Image via LAT Images