Scott McLaughlin has taken a commanding lead in the Virgin Australia Supercars Championship battle by winning a dramatic first leg of the Coates Hire Newcastle 500.
The title fight was turned on its head on the opening lap as Jamie Whincup’s Red Bull Holden took damage that sent it to the garage for 13 laps.
Whincup had looked to the inside of Michael Caruso for fourth at Turn 2 and, when the Nissan turned in at the following bend, contact broke the Holden’s right-front suspension.
A win for McLaughlin and an eventual 21st for Whincup has turned the six-time champion’s 30-point lead into a 78 deficit ahead of the final 150-point race tomorrow.
McLaughlin now only needs to finish 11th in the final race to take his maiden title, even if Whincup wins the race.
It was the perfect result for Shell V-Power Racing as a string of late drama allowed Fabian Coulthard to rise to second from eighth on the grid.
The Ford squad now has an unassailable lead in the teams’ championship, breaking Triple Eight’s stranglehold on the trophy.
“That was awesome. I’m so pumped, whatever happens tomorrow, we’ve given it our best shot,” beamed McLaughlin.
“A one-two for Shell V-Power Racing Team, it’s as good as it gets.
“I really wanted it bad… to get the first win [in Newcastle], it’s full-on. Awesome.”
Tim Slade joined McLaughlin and Coulthard on the podium, while Lee Holdsworth and David Reynolds completed the top five.
McLaughlin had won the start from Reynolds, Shane van Gisbergen and Caruso, but the order was immediately shuffled as the bulk of the field pitted under a lap 1 Safety Car.
The yellow was required after Dale Wood ran wide and into the tyre barriers at Turn 8, leaving Taz Douglas and Jason Bright nowhere to go but join the accident.
Slade and Craig Lowndes stayed out and led at the restart ahead of van Gisbergen, who jumped McLaughlin in the pits, and Reynolds.
Van Gisbergen struggled with his car in the stint that followed, but managed to hold out McLaughlin before a second Safety Car triggered more pitstops on lap 34.
This time it was local hero Aaren Russell in trouble, the Lucas Dumbrell Holden with broken steering after hitting the concrete at the troublesome Turn 8.
Cameron Waters elected not to stop and led on the restart, while the majority of the pack pitted again, despite not yet being able to make it home on fuel.
Waters and Slade scampered away on the restart as van Gisbergen again struggled for pace, complaining bitterly about his car as he fought off McLaughlin.
Despite the championship equation, McLaughlin kept the pressure on his fellow Kiwi, who in turn had Reynolds for close company behind.
Waters and Reynolds both pitted on lap 49, while van Gisbergen and Lowndes pitted a lap later – both losing track position to the Erebus entry.
McLaughlin waited until lap 53 to pit, rejoining narrowly behind Reynolds but comfortably clear of Lowndes, van Gisbergen and Coulthard.
Lowndes bowed out of the contest when he slid into the Turn 12 wall on his own on lap 63, falling victim to the rubber building up off-line.
Slade continued to lead before making his final stop on lap 69, rejoining ahead of van Gisbergen.
The Freightliner Holden came off worse in the ensuring battle at Turn 2, however, dropping behind van Gisbergen, Coulthard and Simona De Silvestro.
McLaughlin turned up the pressure on Reynolds at the front and on lap 72 took the place as the Penrite Commodore slid wide at Turn 12.
A third Safety Car fell on lap 74 when James Moffat, who had earlier lost laps due to damage from a hit on the back straight concrete, buried his Holden in the Turn 2 tyre wall.
McLaughlin took off on the restart and went unchallenged for the duration, the time cut-off eventually being reached four short of the scheduled 95 laps.
There was action aplenty behind however, with De Silvestro crashing out of fifth at Turn 12 on the restart lap after a hip-and-shoulder from Slade.
De Silvestro had been a front-runner throughout the race after jumping to sixth by pitting on the second lap of the first Safety Car period, avoiding the earlier congestion.
More drama unfolded on lap 81 when a touch from van Gisbergen at Turn 8 sent Reynolds into the tyre barrier, dumping the Erebus entry to sixth.
Van Gisbergen dropped places to Coulthard, Slade and Lee Holdsworth a short time later, while a 15-second penalty for the Reynolds contact added further to his troubles.
That left the reigning champion 16th in the final result, as Chaz Mostert, Scott Pye, Nick Percat and Will Davison to filled sixth through 10th.
Nissan repaired De Silvestro’s Altima to return to the track in the closing laps and secure 20th, ensuring Whincup climbed no higher than 21st.
Despite having little to race for after his early drama, the Red Bull driver ended up with the fastest lap of 1:10.1958, set on lap 56.