A scrap to the end between James Courtney and Jamie Whincup is well on the cards after a remarkable opening race of the weekend at Winton Raceway.

Courtney and Whincup made it very clear that they are enmeshed in a winner take all dog fight for the Championship lead while plenty of other contenders are also weighing in on the action.

A third straight win today in an incredible race - Whincup was third - from Craig Lowndes has Courtney just three points from the Championship lead with a chance he may assume the front-running title tomorrow.

"Everything's charging on at the moment and going great for me," Courtney said. "A bit more of the same would be good and hopefully we can come out with the lead in the Championship.

"It would be nice to have someone else in front because Jamie's been there pretty consistently for the last couple of years."

Courtney win in the end was quite comfortable in terms of margin but not without its moments as Lowndes swamped the field towards the end, including his team-mate, but ran out of laps to catch the Jim Beam racer.

"Knowing we had far fresher tyres on the car was great but you had to know where and when to pass," said Lowndes. "Even knowing that we had better tyres then James we ran out of tyres faster than he did."

The end result left the Championship wide open, something that has not overly fazed Whincup.

"It has happened the last three or four years believe it or not. If you look from the outside it looks as though it is all planned. It seems that we set this scene and we are the puppets," Whincup said.

"But that's the way it goes, it's up and down and all over the place. We will have more different leaders of the Championship, probably three or four before we get to the Supercarnivale on the Gold Coast in October."

It wasn't just Courtney and Whincup fighting it out. There were epic battles through the whole field with cars belting each other at every turn as fight packs exchanged blow after blow for positions.

In what was one of the race of the year Tander got a cracking start and took the lead. A train of six fire breathing V8 Supercars then engaged in virtual warfare with Courtney smashing into the bumper of Tander and Whincup joining him in a move from sixth to third.

Such dominating speed did Whincup have that Lowndes was instructed by his team to let him past in the opening laps.

Whincup and Courtney had enormous speed while Tander was holding them both out. Courtney's aggressive assault on Tander allowed Whincup to sneak up from behind.

The attack ended in the pits when something happened during Tander's stop. Courtney sailed by after his pit stop and into clear air. Whincup pitted one lap later and came out simultaneously with Courtney flying down the front straight.

An astonishing sequence of events followed. Whincup made the first turning sweeper with Courtney flying into the same corner at speed. On the most dangerous part of the track Courtney went inside and out, was almost pushed into the wall and somehow ended up in front.

It was then that Courtney skipped away, his strategy good enough to halt Lowndes' late charge.

Courtney was on fire in the Armor All Top Ten Shootout. He produced an amazing lap and became the first man under 1m:22s despite a small brake lock. With Whincup making a mistake on his lap Courtney won his third straight front row start.

"It was absolutely magic," Courtney screamed from his cockpit after the lap.

"It was a great, great moment this morning. It was probably one of our best moments with Jim Beam Racing. The car was great in the Shootout. It would do everything I wanted and to have it by that margin was exceptional."

Whincup's small mistake left him in sixth on the grid and a tough battle on his hands to retain the Championship lead after the first race.

"It was tough in qualifying, we just didn't have a good car and my lap wasn't good enough. We didn't have the car pace today or the tyre life. We probably over-achieved today with what we had," said Whincup.

Qualifying was intriguing with the initial fight for track position and 29 cars attempting to get at least one clear run on the soft Dunlops. Most achieved that in the first half of the session, positing early laps before regrouping for the final frantic minutes.

The cat and mouse game between Whincup and Courtney was just as vicious in qualifying as it was in the race. It was a matter of milliseconds between the two in the 20 minute dash for glory, Whincup taking the early edge before the Armor All Top Ten Shootout.

Courtney's strategy not to use new tyres in practice was an ace up his sleeve, as it was for Orccon Steel FPR's Mark Winterbottom and Dunlop Super Dealers' Richards who clearly mastered set-up from practice.

Winterbottom and Richards also had an edge on their tyres and setup. Both made spectacular returns to the top ten, Richards third and Winterbottom eighth.

The best story of qualifying though was the effort of Tander to come back after the clock had stopped. He was 17th and down the barrel of a midfield grid position. When he crossed the line for the first time with just 30 seconds left he had one lap at glory.

Once again the "Ice Man" lived up to his nerves of steel with a gutsy pressure lap that squeezed him into sixth and earnt him another life in the shootout.

Equally the Jack Daniel's Racing brothers Todd and Rick Kelly fired dramatic early shots. Todd Kelly reversed his fortunes of yesterday with a solid fourth but Rick Kelly could not repeat his third in practice despite firming in the Top Ten early.

Davison made a great return to form by squeezing into the Top Ten as he slowly inches his way back to the man who challenged Whincup all the way to second in last year's Championship.



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