Reigning V8 Supercars champion Jamie Whincup made the best possible start to his title defence, snatching a dramatic last-lap win in the season’s opening race of the Clipsal 500.
Having gone off-sequence and opted for a three-stop strategy, the TeamVodafone driver emerged in the lead on lap 28 after the first round of pit stops.
Relinquishing the position to Trading Post FPR's Will Davison on lap 40 pitting for his second stop, the pivotal moment of the race came just five laps later when Dave Reynolds (The Bottle-O Racing Team) hit the wall at turn eight, triggering the safety car.
With the fuel window approaching, the leading two-stoppers pitted early hoping make it to the end without a further stop. Staying out on circuit, Whincup moved up to third.
Needing to give himself room to pit for fuel, Whincup took the lead on lap 52, passing Davison and putting in an incredible sequence of laps, breaking lap record after lap record. With 12 laps remaining, he had pulled out a 12-second lead over Holden Racing Team's Garth Tander and Davison, before making his final stop.
From there, Whincup went faster again as he chased down the leaders. With most of the field having to pit over the closing laps, Davison, conserving fuel to make it to the finish stayed out in the lead.
After Tander was forced to pit for fuel from third, Whincup then overhauled Mark Winterbottom (Orrcon Steel FPR) to go into second.
Davison's gamble had looked to have paid off until midway through the last lap when his engine started to suffer from fuel starvation. With the Ford Falcon sputtering, Whincup swooped through to claim a memorable win, with Davison coasting over the line for second just ahead of Tander in third.
After an emotional week following the death of his father last weekend, it was an emphatic victory for Whincup.
“I didn’t think I was going to win but by far it was my best win today,” said Whincup.
“I was a bit underdone coming into the race. I went out there and just gave it everything I had. It went quick in a way; I was so focused on fighting down the FPR cars.”
It was a frustrating end to a promising day for pole-sitter Craig Lowndes in the second TeamVodafone car, after a left rear puncture on lap 50 dashed any chances of victory. He fought hard to regain lost ground and went on to take fourth ahead of an impressive Lee Holdsworth in his first race for new team IRWIN Racing.
Fabian Coulthard (Lockwood Racing) and Rick Kelly (Jack Daniels Racing) finished sixth and seventh respectively, while Todd Kelly (Jack Daniels Racing) was unlucky to miss out on a top-five finish after contact with Lowndes in the final stages dropped him from fifth to eighth. Mark Winterbottom and Steve Johnson (Jim Beam Racing) rounded out the top 10.
Disappointed to miss out on his first win for FPR, Davison said: “What can I say. We certainly gave it our best shot today, but results like this can happen in motorsport.
“It is a crazy game we play so I thought I might have just hung in there, but it wasn't to be.
“It was a great race to be honest. The car was fantastic and strong from the start as I passed Jamie (Whincup) and Garth (Tander). The safety car came at the magic lap and I saved as much fuel from that point as I could and I just drove to the fuel target they gave me. The car had a heap of speed but to make the end of the race without stopping I couldn't use it.
“Obviously it is frustrating to be second and when I saw the fuel light come on the second-last lap I knew the game was up. The motorsport gods weren't smiling today. We put on a good show and the fan support was amazing.”
Two big crashes at the Adelaide street circuit’s infamous turn eight claimed four cars during the race. Just six laps in James Courtney (Holden Racing Team) suffered an apparent mechanical problem and speared into the wall at 220km/h. Sliding on the fluid leaking from Courtney's car, Taz Douglas (Team iSelect) and Jason Bright (Team BOC) also made heavy contact with the wall. Bright was taken to hospital for a precautionary X-ray on his shoulder.
All three, as well as Reynolds, whose first race with the Ford Performance Racing stable came to an end on lap 46 at the same spot, face a lengthy battle to get their cars repaired for Sunday’s race.
Another 78 laps will be run in the second 250km Clipsal 500 race on Sunday.