Local hero Scott McLaughlin has won race 29 of the Supercars season on home soil in New Zealand, extending his championship lead in the process with one round to go.
The DJR Team Penske driver fought off a hard charge from Jamie Whincup at the end of the race to take his first win at Pukekohe Park since 2013 and with it, the Jason Richards Memorial Trophy.
Good drive off the line meant Whincup got the holeshot into turn one, putting a quick gap on McLaughlin and Shane van Gisbergen behind him. The top three streaked away in the opening lap with van Gisbergen looking like he’d mount a charge on championship leader McLaughlin though couldn’t get by, soon loosing ground to the leading pair.
Surprisingly, Whincup was the first to blink, stopping on lap six to be taken out of sequence to prevent a double-stack with van Gisbergen. A relatively short fuel drop meant he came out in clear air and put him in good stead for the second stint as Craig Lowndes came in on the next tour, emerging in a good position with everyone else yet to stop.
McLaughlin took his first stop of the day on lap 13, taking around half of his fuel drop at once as he reemerged on the track down on Whincup but ahead of Lowndes. van Gisbergen and Fabian Coulthard pitted on lap 16 with the #97 leading #12 though a drama with an incompressible jack in the Triple Eight driver’s stop baulked him by six seconds, leaving him vulnerable to Coulthard and emerging back on track in 8th.
In the second stint, Whincup held a consistent lead over McLaughlin who was keeping Lowndes at bay, knowing he’d claw back some of the gap to the leader in the next fuel stop. Lowndes came in for his second and last stop on lap 33, filing back onto the circuit in clear air.
On the next tour, Whincup came in from the lead, a long stop keeping him on the jacks for a while thanks to the short first pit stop. Crucially, Whincup came out from the pits behind McLaughlin who was a lap ahead but could now dictate the pace of the #1 car.
McLaughlin blinked on lap 38 for his last spot, his stop time being much shorter than that of Whincup thanks to a longer first stop. The Kiwi came out of the pits ahead of Whincup but on colder tyres, making him vulnerable to the defending champion on his rejoin lap.
A small mistake at the end of the back straight saw him run wide at the chicane but McLaughlin held the higher ground, keeping Whincup at bay as his tyres then came up to temperature and the gap normalised.
Contact on lap 43 between Nick Percat and Cam Waters at the final corners nearly saw the BJR Commodore end up in the fence after the Prodrive Falcon rode up on its rear tyres. Percat became vulnerable to Garth Tander down the main straight, losing a spot but getting back past Tander and then Waters on the next tour.
From the race lead, van Gisbergen’s final stop came on lap 47, the same lap he pitted on en route to Sunday’s win. van Gisbergen came back onto the track in fifth place in front of Mostert but behind Lowndes, Reynolds, Whincup and McLaughlin who had the race lead.
As the race started to tick down in the final 20 laps, Whincup started to gnaw away at McLaughlin’s lead, cutting it down as the pair closed in on lapped traffic in front. Behind them, Lowndes let team-mate van Gisbergen through for fourth place on lap 57 as the Kiwi set his sights on Reynolds in front, wanting to narrow the points margin to McLaughlin as much as possible.
On lap 60, van Gisbergen finally got past Reynolds for third position, moving himself up onto the podium behind team-mate Whincup and McLaughlin as the gap at the front normalised. The live points gap change to a 23 point advantage to McLaughlin as behind them Lowndes got the better of Reynolds to make it a Triple Eight lockout in positions two, three and four.
In the last ten laps, Whincup mounted another attack on McLaughin, chipping away at the race leader who had fresher tyres but was struggling to keep up the pace. The gap closed down to just half a second in the dying laps as Whincup piled on the pressure to the Kiwi.
On the final lap, Whincup was given the instruction to back off and let van Gisbergen through, doing so on the main straight to even up the points in the championship battle. McLaughlin took the win and with it, extended his lead in the title battle back to where it was when they entered the weekend.
The controversial finish between the two Triple Eight cars received a frosty reception from the crowd as they pulled into the podium positions. Finishing one-two in the races, the championship leaders tied in points for the Jason Richards Memorial Trophy but McLaughlin’s Saturday pole secured him the award.
Behind the manufactured drama at the front, Lowndes led Reynolds home in the top five while Mostert, Coulthard, Heimgartner, Winterbottom and Percat were the first ten home.
Image via Shell V-Power Racing Team