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.

"It was through the pit-stop cycle that we lost a bit of track position, and a couple of small mistakes through the middle of the race," he reported, "The car was not particularly flash then. Jamie opened up enough of a gap and was up the road by the second stop.

"There is a little bit disappointment but, overall, we have made massive gains here over last year and second is a good result. The car did not have a lot of power at the end of the race, but we were able to hold James off as long as I got the middle sector right where I was quicker."

Young local hero Shane Van Gisbergen was out before he had crossed the finish line once as a shove by an unidentified car appeared to push the 20-year old SP Tools driver straight into the wall, sparking a midfield melee involving four cars. van Gisbergen got back into the field, but had suffered terminal damage and stopped dead in the middle of the track, prompting the safety car from the outset.

Whincup admitted that he was hopeful van Gisbergen and the other 'hometown heroes' rally tomorrow.

"I've been talking Shane van Gisbergen up this week," the champion claimed, "He's only young and had a great start to the year. It was sad to see him sitting on the side of the track. It's always good to go well at home and, unfortunately, for him it wasn't today."

"'Murph' [Greg Murphy] has exactly the same car as I have and we have similar issues with the car as me. We will help him out tomorrow and get him up there. He will make a few tweaks overnight and get up there."

Centaur Racing's Tony d'Alberto emerged from the pack after a brilliant qualifying session to appear in his first Armor All Top Ten Shootout where he claimed eighth on the grid. He was third after first qualifying.

"We were a little surprised as we were really aiming for top 15 today to be honest," d'Alberto admitted, "To finish third in practice was a great result and my lap in the shootout was better than my first time in Adelaide, so that was good.

"We got a good start today, but got caught up in a concertina on lap two which didn't help. Then we had to pit early for a diffuser problem, which set us back a little, but all in all it was a good day."

He nabbed another three places from the start line to skip into fifth before the safety car, and then held on for a solid twelfth on a great day for the first-year team.



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