Whincup stands tall and moves further clear
At a glance, it looks pretty simple. Jamie Whincup carried a 30-point lead into the final round of the Supercars season, won the last race and picked up a seventh title by 21 points.
Casual as you like, yeah? We won’t fill your screen going back through what happened at the Coates Hire Newcastle 500. You’ve probably already watched it. Multiple times.
As a weekend itself for Whincup, it was a bit scrappy. He knew the going would be tough from fifth on the grid on Saturday, with Scott McLaughlin on pole, and pushed a bit too hard to try to pass Michael Caruso’s Nissan at Turn 2, and then stay on its inside heading to Turn 3.
The initial contact gave Whincup a right-front puncture, which pitched him into the wall heading down Shortland Esplanade. Fortunately for Whincup, that was more glancing blow than birdcage-rattling and he was able to limp back to pitlane.
His Red Bull Holden Racing Team repaired the broken steering and lower-control arm and got him back out 13 laps down. Whincup crossed the line 21st to collect 42 invaluable points.
They fall in the same crucial - title-winning, even - category as the 90 he salvaged at Bathurst, following patch-up repairs to a broken valve.
It gave Whincup an outside chance on Sunday and he held up his end of the deal, being let through by team-mate Shane van Gisbergen mid-race and going on to win.
That ramped up the pressure on McLaughlin after his first penalty, let alone the second.
Whincup finishing second would’ve meant McLaughlin only had to get to 15th rather than 11th. Third for Whincup and McLaughlin would’ve won the title despite his third and final penalty that dropped him to 18th.
This seventh championship and first since 2014 stands out given Whincup and Triple Eight haven’t been clear of the pack this year, as has been the case so often in the last decade.
Four victories is Whincup’s lowest tally since 2006, his first season with the team, but Sunday’s meant it was enough to get the job done and become Supercars’ first seven-time champion.
Heartbreak for class-act McLaughlin
“It’s one hand on the championship trophy for Scott McLaughlin,” Neil Crompton declared as the #17 Shell Ford crossed the line to win Race 25 of the season on Saturday afternoon.
That was the consensus after the victory from pole and his rival's delay gave McLaughlin a 78-point lead over Whincup, with only 150 left to play for in the season.
Even Sunday started well, with another pole, a clean start - McLaughlin’s starts haven’t always been strong, but they were in Newcastle - and the lead throughout the first stint.
He never got that second hand on the trophy, though.
Three penalties, with the last issued on the final lap and costing McLaughlin the 11th place he needed to win the championship, is about as horrific a way to lose a maiden title as you could have imagined for the 24-year-old.
McLaughlin gave it his all, all the way to the finish. He had to come through the field twice and spent the final 21 laps with a seriously-bent Shell V-Power Falcon after copping hits at the lap 74 Safety Car restart.
He got to where he needed to, passing James Moffat for 11th at Turn 11 on lap 93 of the 95, but the clash with Craig Lowndes less than 30 seconds later on the run between Turns 1 and 2 sealed his fate.
Stewards issued a penalty that was always coming, and before the end of the race meaning it couldn’t be appealed.
On the day he ended Lowndes’ monopoly on Supercars’ fan-voted Most Popular Driver Award, McLaughlin was all-class after the race.
He put the red Shell hat on, braved the camera and spoke with Greg Murphy for TV within 90 seconds of getting out of his car, as Whincup was driving his into the podium area.
A short while later, he spoke - and well - to journalists including Supercars.com, then went to mingle with fans on pit straight that had gathered opposite his garage to show their support.
At a time people wouldn’t have knocked him for wanting to hide away from the world, he then went down to Triple Eight to congratulate them on Whincup’s title. With Lowndes otherwise engaged when McLaughlin got there, he phoned that night to apologise for the incident.
The 2017 title might have eluded McLaughlin, but he will have only won more fans for how he has carried himself since.
Tekno beats Preston to single-car accolade
A pair of ninths for outgoing driver Will Davison was enough for Tekno Autosports to hold out Preston Hire Racing in the fight to be the best single-car operation in Supercars.
Davison’s second and final season with Jonathon Webb’s outfit has been tough, and his chances of staying on the grid full-time looked slim until the lifeline with the revamped 23Red Racing emerged.
He left Tekno with a strong weekend, falling out of podium contention on Saturday due to having to double stack behind boom buddy Lowndes during a Safety Car period.
Still, the ninths meant he finished 12 points ahead of Lee Holdsworth in their private battle between the one-car teams, for what was 15th in the drivers’ championship.
Holdsworth would have actually finished on the ‘round’ podium in Newcastle, as it was back in the day, showing his street-circuit prowess again with fourth - from 18th on the grid - on Saturday and eighth on Sunday.
That made him the second-highest scorer across the dramatic weekend behind David Reynolds. The Barry Sheene Medalist took his Erebus Commodore to fifth - even after being half-spun by van Gisbergen - on Saturday and third in the final race.
For his part, Reynolds leapt from 10th to seventh in the championship in Newcastle, clearing Garth Tander, Cameron Waters and Lowndes, whose pair of DNFs sent him to the very foot of the top 10 from sixth, which Mark Winterbottom nabbed despite a quiet weekend for Prodrive.
The Nissans loved Newcastle
Nissan’s fifth season in Supercars makes for lean reading, however you crunch it. It was the first year a driver didn’t take an Altima to the podium, its fastest-lap column was empty and there was just the single pole position.
Caruso finished as the top Nissan in the championship in 13th, one spot ahead of Rick Kelly, while Todd Kelly and Simona De Silvestro were 18th and 24th. Newcastle, though, meant the team at least signed off with a good showing.
Led by Caruso in fourth, two Nissans qualified in the top 10 on Saturday, while three - including the retiring Todd - were in Sunday’s Shootout.
Saturday’s race didn’t go to plan, Rick its best finisher in 10th and Caruso hindered by the first-lap touch from Whincup and then being delayed by double-stacking in pitlane. One day later, though, Rick and Caruso finished fourth and fifth with Todd 10th in what’s likely to be his last Supercars drive.
It was enough for its grouped Kelly-raced entries to jump Mobil 1 HSV Racing into sixth in the teams’ championship.
While De Silvestro left relatively empty-handed, the Swiss driver was impressive on the final weekend of her rookie campaign.
On Saturday, when strategy vaulted the Harvey Norman Altima up the order, De Silvestro wasn’t out of place, running strongly in fifth before crashing at Turn 12 in the closing stages, while fighting Tim Slade.
Qualifying inside the top 20 for just the second time, in 17th, on Sunday gave De Silvestro a better platform to build from, executing a string of assertive moves at Turn 8 during the race to be running just outside the top 10 before getting turned around by McLaughlin.
Asked by Supercars.com about the Altimas working well around the 2.6km street circuit in the races, De Silvestro said: “The biggest thing is the straightaways are not too long, so it doesn’t really hurt us that much.
“But I think our car mechanically is working really well, it didn’t have a lot of tyre deg, so that was really positive.”
Actually, everybody felt the love
“What was special for me was on Friday,” Mark Dutton surmised of the maiden Coates Hire Newcastle 500.
“We were coming in on Thursday, set-up day, walked along the water just to get a bit of a look and it was pretty spectacular, [and went] into Gate 1.
“We did the same thing on Friday and there was a queue for literally about 500 metres, of people coming in on Friday. That’s really, really cool.
“We are entertainment, we are sport. To see people enjoying it and in droves like that on a Friday, let alone a Saturday and a Sunday, I really enjoyed it. The whole team did.”
Dutton’s anecdote wasn’t unique. How fans flocked to the new street circuit over the weekend - especially Friday’s roll-up of 56,478 - was noticed within the paddock.
The total three-day crowd figure exceeded 192,000, for what was an absolute gem of a finale. See you on November 23-25 2018, Newcastle.