JAMIE WHINCUP has moved a step closer to securing his third V8 Supercars championship after claiming first in the final race of the Sandown Challenge yesterday.
His only challenger for the title, teammate Craig Lowndes, finished fourth after a reverse-pitstop strategy failed to pay off.
The veteran driver will need to finish ahead of his teammate in both Sydney races and hope an in-form Whincup runs into trouble in at least one race to steal the championship from under him.
Whincup topped the charts in qualifying and was never headed, while Lowndes's slow start from the second row of the grid meant he lost crucial positions before the first corner. That resulted in the plan-B pit strategy and, unfortunately for Lowndes, it failed to pay off as Whincup left Ford Performance Racing driver Mark Winterbottom in his wake to extend his championship lead to 188 points ahead of Lowndes.
''I wanted to come out of this weekend and go into Homebush within that 300 points and I think we've maintained our gap to Jamie,'' Lowndes said.
''I'm not too disappointed. We had a great run there with Will [Davison] at the end and I had Garth [Tander] closing down. Homebush could be anything.''
It was almost game over for Whincup when he and Winterbottom came together leaving the pits. A drive-through penalty was feared but race officials declared Winterbottom's tail hit on Whincup was not illegal, given his front wheel was not in front of his rival's rear wheel.
''My Triple 8 Holden was on rails today,'' Whincup said.
''The guys did a great job in the stops and gave me good tyres and it was just a matter of getting there at the end. I couldn't be happier. Craig is going a great job. Both cars have been quick all year and now it's down to Sydney and it should be a cracker.''
The circuit may not have been as chaotic as Saturday's rain-soaked sprint but, in perfect driving conditions, the racing was as brilliant as it can be. Safety cars and opposing pit strategies assured action-packed racing, positions chopping and changing throughout the 65-lap race.
Shane Van Gisbergen was the first frontrunner to falter, grip troubles forcing him into the pits twice in the opening half, while Davison again proved the danger man, leaping Lowndes to pounce into third with less than 17 laps remaining.
A thrilling four-way battle between the pair, along with Winterbottom and Tander, ensued for the final 10 laps, Tander coming from outside the top 10 to keep his battle alive with Winterbottom for the championship's third place.
Winterbottom's second place means he has regained third position in the championship from Van Gisbergen, with Tander in fifth and teammate Davison, who finished third, also entering the battle, now sixth in the championship.
''The car was not too far away. I just had a little bit of under-steer,'' Winterbottom said.
''But to be on the podium again, FPR is really kicking on strong for the rest of the year.''
Drivers have 11 daysto prepare before descending on Homebush for the season finale, the Sydney 500.
Race one winner Rick Kelly again struggled for speed in the dry with his Jack Daniel's Commodore.
He and his brother Todd, who finished third on Saturday, never made an impact up front.