DARWIN, June 16 AAP - Ford and Jamie Whincup's nearest championship rival put the heat back on the Holden pin-up driver in Darwin on Sunday to reinvigorate the V8 Supercars season.
Following Whincup's sixth win from the last eight races on Saturday, the 28-year-old opened up a sizeable 224-point gap in the series standings.
He had found his groove in his reconfigured Commodore VF, dominating in Texas and Perth and he looked to be coasting to his fifth title with another commanding victory at Hidden Valley.
Desperate not to let Whincup continue his demolition, a fierce rival and a teammate stepped up with Top End temperatures reaching 34C.
First it was Ford Performance Racing's out-of-sorts Mark Winterbottom.
He dusted himself off after a bump on teammate David Reynolds the previous day that ruined both their podium prospects and angered their bosses.
Under plenty of pressure, Winterbottom broke through for his first race win in more than 12 months to earn some redemption with an emphatic win by 6.01sec ahead of Holden pair James Courtney and Craig Lowndes.
Then in the third and final race of the weekend, it was Lowndes who put his hand up.
Avoiding a spectacular pile-up that forced seven drivers to quit, the 38-year-old crossed the line with Winterbottom hot on his tail and Reynolds completing the podium.
Second in the championship, Lowndes got a lift when told he had reduced the gap to Whincup - who came home fifth and a penalty-affected 19th on Sunday - to 159 points to keep the title battle alive.
"You always get a little bit down on yourself when you see that gap growing," said Lowndes.
"But today's proven we can bounce back. It's nice to have a victory."
Lowndes was relieved to score his 92nd career win given his tyres were degrading on the abrasive track.
"I think we pushed a little bit too hard," he said.
"We burnt the rear wheels up quite quickly and Frosty (Winterbottom) was pouncing.
"I knew he'd come but I thought we could keep that gap. But the last two laps, the rear tyres started to go."
Ford's Will Davison is third on the points table followed by Holden trio Shane van Gisbergen, Fabian Coulthard and Jason Bright, while Winterbottom jumped to seventh.
"A win and a second is a good result so happy with the day," said Winterbottom, who is hoping to stay on a roll with the next round in Townsville from July 5.
Fans had to endure a long delay in race two after carnage on lap one.
With cars travelling at 190km/h between turns two and three, contact to Tim Slade's Mercedes seemed to be the cause of a massive pile-up that left 10 vehicles strewn across the track.
Slade, David Wall, Alex Premat, Lee Holdsworth, James Moffat and Alex Davison were forced to quit due to excessive damage, as was Dean Fiore, whose Holden ended up on two wheels after smacking the tyre barrier at serious speed.
The incident resulted in a red flag and a rare race restart 15 minutes later as debris was cleared from the track.