Jamie Whincup came back from the brink to take a seventh Supercars crown in a Newcastle season finale that defied convention – and belief.
Had it. Almost lost it. Perilously close to completely losing it. Probably didn’t have a chance to get it. Got some luck. Got a gift from a teammate. Controlled it. Lost it again. Won the race, lost the title. Won both.
Confused? You’re not alone. For that (and we probably missed a few other plot twists besides) was the background to Jamie Whincup’s record-extending seventh Supercars title on the streets of Newcastle last weekend – and while the record books will show this was a title taken by a proven champion who converted a series lead over a rival who’d never tasted championship success in Scott McLaughlin, anyone who witnessed Sunday’s 26th and final race of a compelling season will know the story was much, much more difficult to digest.
Rewind to Saturday, and Whincup’s quest for seventh heaven looked well and truly shot. Coming into the penultimate race of the year with a slim but handy 30-point lead over Team Penske’s McLaughlin, it wasn’t a disaster that the Kiwi was on pole yet again; from fifth on the grid, the Red Bull Holden Racing Team star could do something from there. What he did was most uncharacteristic; Whincup and Michael Caruso (Nissan) came together on the third corner of the 91-lap journey, leaving J-Dub with his hand up acknowledging his error, broken steering and a damaged right rear to his Commodore, and a lengthy stint in the pits as the RBHRT crew worked frantically just to get him back in the fray. He finished 13 laps down and last, but gained 42 championship points to somewhat mitigate the damage caused by McLaughlin taking his eighth win of the season – and a 78-point series lead on a day Triple Eight team boss Roland Dane called “the worst I can remember” for his team.
Coming into Sunday, the equation for McLaughlin was simple – finish inside the top 11, and a maiden title was his no matter what Whincup did. Yet another pole (his 16th in 26 races) was the perfect place to start, and with Whincup in fifth again, the title appeared to be McLaughlin’s to lose. But after his lap 15 pit stop, McLaughlin was issued a drive-through penalty for speeding in pit lane. Later, as McLaughlin came back through the field, he tagged the Nissan of Simona de Silvestro at Turn 2 and copped a 15-second penalty, which dropped him back to 21st at his final stop on lap 50.
By that stage, Whincup was up to second behind teammate Shane van Gisbergen, and when the race resumed after a safety car, SVG played the perfect team game and let J-Dub through to the lead, meaning McLaughlin needed to claw back to 11th to take the title. With Whincup sailing on serenely up front, McLaughlin chipped away, and assumed 11th on the third-last lap when he passed James Moffat’s GRM entry. But there was another act to this high-speed drama yet to play out.
The third member of the Triple Eight trio, Craig Lowndes, was storming through the field on fresher tyres in the latter stages, and when McLaughlin ran wide at the first corner on the penultimate lap, Lowndes spied an opportunity to pass down the inside of the uphill run into Turn 2. McLaughlin moved to cover him off, the cars touched, and Lowndes was spat into the fence and into retirement. The Kiwi crossed the line 11th but was issued another time penalty, which dropped him to 18th place. Which meant the race – and the title – were Whincup’s.
For a driver who has done more winning than anyone in Supercars history – Sunday’s victory was the 107th of his glittering career – Whincup seemed genuinely astonished by the turn of events, saying he’d “sort of written myself off” after Saturday’s shocker.
“It was an unbelievable day from where I stand,” Whincup said.
“We just felt robbed yesterday, we felt like we worked so hard and did so much to get ourselves within championship contention but we didn’t feel like we deserved that yesterday. Today, we just thought we had to go out there and do our job, and for things to fall our way.”
It was Whincup’s first title since 2014 after winning six in seven years from 2008, and was quick to pay tribute to McLaughlin, who won more races than any other driver this year and had more than five times the number of poles.
“Credit to the DJR Team Penske crew, they’ve been tough competition all year,” J-Dub said.
“Scott (McLaughlin) will probably come back and win five or six championships of his own in the future.”
With Whincup’s celebrations in full swing – a dip in the water fountain adjacent to the podium post-race was a mere prelude to a backflip into the harbour – SVG was contemplating a title defence that didn’t go to plan, his own teammate succeeding him as champion, and the disappointment of a mate and compatriot in McLaughlin after finishing in second place.
“The race was a huge improvement from yesterday,” he said after Saturday’s Race 25 had ended with him in 16th after an incident with Erebus driver David Reynolds saw him cop a 15-second time penalty.
“We had a pretty appalling day yesterday, I’m proud of us for turning that around. I watched that race unfold on the big screens. I let Jamie through and I was torn, Scotty is a good friend but I was just so happy to see everyone’s faces here and how hard we’ve worked this year. We turned our year around pace-wise, it’s been pretty amazing.”
SVG finished fourth overall, 273 points behind Whincup, while Lowndes, who had a pair of non-finishes over the weekend after clouting the Turn 12 wall on Saturday before the McLaughlin incident on Sunday, dropped from sixth to 10th overall for the season.
“It’s been a poor year to be honest … it would have been nice to be on the podium,” Lowndes told supercars.com.
“Yesterday we had a good opportunity and I made a little mistake on the last corner and slid into the wall, and today, obviously everyone knows what happened.”
What happened was a finale to the Supercars season that simply couldn’t have been crazier, more compelling or a more dramatic way to welcome Newcastle to the championship calendar. Adelaide and the 2018 season-opener are four months away, and we might need that long to truly soak in all that the end of 2017 served up. And it’s only right that the main beneficiary of that drama gets the final word.
“Does it get any better than that?” Whincup pondered?
No J-Dub, it doesn’t.
By Matt Clayton for redbull.com