Jamie Whincup extended his advantage at the head of the V8 Supercar standings with victory in leg one of the ITM 400 in Hamilton, but another epic battle at the front of the field suggests that he won't have it easy this season.
Whincup beat old rival Garth Tander into second, but it was James Courtney's third place that underlined the threat to the TeamVodafone driver, as the Jim Beam Ford man ramped up his challenge at the top of the points. The only thing separating the trio were pits-stops and strategy, yet they still battled head-to-head for 59 laps, and just under two hours, at the challenging New Zealand street circuit.
Courtney jumped into second place in the standings with a third place in the first of two races this weekend and is now within 100 points of Whincup - a margin that means, with some luck, he could assume the championship lead tomorrow. Whincup, however, could become the first person to win both races and back-to-back Hamilton events if he can qualify well and take the second race on Sunday.
“It was a tough race all round, a full battle,” Whincup said, “I was not completely happy with my car and not really into it, to be honest. Surprise, surprise, like a lot of our races this year, it started to sprinkle [with rain] but, thankfully, GT was a pioneer in front of me and I was able to follow him around and catch back up.
“My team did an awesome stop and got me out in front and that pretty much was where the race was won. Once we got some clear air the car went really quick and we were able to come home strongly in the end.”
Great pit strategy also lifted Courtney from ninth to second at the halfway mark, squeezing in between Whincup and Tander. The three got distance between the field with wet weather circling and a second safety car possible in the changing conditions. However, Courtney's early strategy success came back to haunt him at his second stop, when a longer fill shuffled him back to third and a mammoth ten seconds behind Whincup and only slightly less to Tander before a safety car on lap 44 made for a great finish.
“It's good for me and the boys to be up there in the championship,” Courtney admitted, “We are still 97 points behind, which feels like a lifetime, so we have a lot of work to do, but we are definitely there or thereabouts.
“To be on the budget we are running on, and the team we are, I think the boys are doing a cracking job and we are managing to squeeze every second out of the thing. Hopefully, we can keep developing the car at the same rate as these guys here and stay there.”
Tander was in supreme form once again, lifting his championship position to eighth and refusing to write himself off as an end of year contender.