Reigning V8 Supercar champion Jamie Whincup added victory in the opening leg of the Hamilton 400 to the three relatively easy wins in the first three races of the 2009 series, ridding himself of the memories of the heavy accident that ruled him out of last year's event in New Zealand

Towards the end of Saturday's 200km race, Whincup held a six-second lead before a late safety car brought the field back to him, but was still able to resist Ford Performance Racing's Mark Winterbottom and Garry Rogers Motorsports' Lee Holdsworth, who completed the podium. Will Davison took fourth for the Toll Holden Race Team, ahead of Steven Johnson (Jim Beam Racing) and Fabian Coulthard (Wilson Security Ford), who was the best of the New Zealanders on their home turf.

"We did a lot of work here last year and got zero reward - it was by far the darkest day of the season," Whincup said, "We were at a track that really suits us and went home with a completely wrecked car. It wasn't just a car though, it was chassis #12, the Bathurst winner. This one was about re-grouping and getting one back for all of the hard work last year."

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Whincup's comeback came after a horror first day when he was 21st in practice, but all that changed dramatically when he qualified on the front row of the grid alongside Winterbottom.

"We had a crazy day," Whincup admitted, "I was a commentator here last year and 21st in practice yesterday in a car I wasn't quite happy with. But we came out today, qualifying was amazing and then, in the Shootout, there was one thousandth of a second separating us.

"I was pushing 110 per cent and nearly stuck it in the walls a couple of times. I won with a fast car, but I just go about my business, concentrate on one event at a time and think about records after that."

Despite being beaten once again, Winterbottom insisted that he still had faith that his FPR team can challenge Whincup.

"We are not far off - we can do it over one lap, we just need to do it for 59," he said, "We've got to work harder and get the car better."

Holdsworth was thinking further ahead.

"We had quite good pace at the start of the race, and it just got better and better while everyone else fell off," he reflected, "We didn't have the speed of Jamie, but I felt I could get Mark. He just held me off at the end.

"I will have good pace tomorrow. We have got good tyres in the bank and we seem to go well at these street circuits. We always knew we were going to go well at these circuits and the next race is at our home circuit. It's when we get to the events like Phillip Island where the true challenge will be. Our cars don't like the long radius corners so, if we can sort that out, we will have a good championship."

Will Davison looked like he could challenge Holdsworth for the final podium position, but didn't quite have enough in the tank. However, a strong result in the first race will give the practice pacesetter confidence heading into Sunday's second qualifying.

"I'm very relieved after a disappointing qualifying session," he admitted, "The speed was in the car to challenge for a top spot, but I didn't get it right in qualifying. We were confident that, if I could have a clean race, we would have the pace to mix it up the front.

"I had a great start, had lots of patience and, when the key time came, everyone pitted and I maximised my car speed. We concentrated on a clean pit-stop and we gained a few spots too. On fresh tyres, we were quick and I had a charge at Holdsworth but, by the end, I'd been hard on the tyres and we didn't quite have enough left. We started twelfth so to recover and finish fourth is fantastic."

Behind Coulthard, Kelly brothers Rick and Todd gave their family-run team two cars in the top ten, with Alex Davison confirming brother Will's belief in ninth, ahead of Team BOC's Jason Richards after both qualified down the order in 16th and 20th respectively.

"I gave away too many spots at the start when I nearly stalled," Davison admitted, "This is something I will really need to work on at an upcoming test, but we had reasonable pace in the middle of the race, but we just seemed to keep on catching traffic. The final five-lap sprint to the flag was pretty exciting as we passed a couple of cars but, like Adelaide, I've got a sore foot from all the heavy braking."

Going in the opposite direction, meanwhile, HRT's Garth Tander went from fifth on the grid to eleventh at the flag, while GRM's Michael Caruso, Whincup's TeamVodafone colleague Craig Lowndes and Jim Beam Racing's James Courtney all lost top ten places. Caruso started in fourth but bogged down at the start and was almost collected by team-mate Holdsworth.

"I stalled leaving the pits, which was entirely my fault, but then we gained back what we lost on the track and I was in a good position to pick off Steve Johnson on the restart," Tander revealed "Then I got whacked big time from behind by James Courtney.

"There was all sorts of fun and games ahead of me on the restart - Courtney could have done a better job of reacting to what was going on in front, but it wasn't entirely his fault. However, it cost us spots when I lost all rear downforce with the wing bent up."

After qualifying seventh, Lowndes suffered some minor damage from a first lap melee which unsettled the balance of his TeamVodafone V8 Supercar and contributed towards recurring understeer which, on lap 33, led to contact with a concrete barrier that broke the front lower upright.

"It was a disappointing finish as we had a great car up until that point," Lowndes said, "I had some problems with my rear roll bar which gave me a lot more understeer than I would have liked and, with the damage sustained, the team did a fantastic job to get me back out there so I could collect some points."

As usual on a street circuit, there were accidents aplenty, but none more frightening than that to befall Marcus Marshall, who rammed into a tyre bundle at the Tarua Chicane in the closing moments. The Team IntaRacing driver was launched through the chicane, before attempting to limp back to the pits, bringing out the safety car that slowed Whincup's progress.

"I clipped the tyre barrier in an ugly fashion and, unluckily, the front of the car folded underneath itself and caused some major damage to the engine," Marshall revealed, having come to a halt at pit entry, "I thought that I would be able to limp the car back but, unfortunately, it didn't quite make it with the engine stopping. It was extremely disappointing as we had a good car during practice and qualifying. After an incident early in the race, it was just a matter of trying to fight my way through the field. We recorded a good pit-stop but, unfortunately, we just couldn't make an impression on the front-running guys."

Stone Brothers Racing's Shane van Gisbergen, meanwhile, crossed the line in ninth spot, but dropped to 17th after being handed a 28-second penalty for contact with Autobarn Racing's Paul Dumbrell early in the race.