Jamie Whincup won the race, but Shane van Gisbergen won the title. Whincup dominated Race 28 at the Coates Hire Sydney 500 after beating his teammate off the line, but Van Gisbergen claimed third to clinch the 2016 Supercars Championship.
However he did it the hard way; an early clash with Mark Winterbottom drew a penalty that dropped him as low as 22nd, before a late Safety Car and a stirring charge home brought him enough points to mathematically clinch the title.
Drama for the Kiwi began with a poor start from pole position that saw the #97 Holden shuffled back to sixth through the opening corners. An attempted pass on Winterbottom nine laps later then left Van Gisbergen in serious trouble as he tagged The Bottle-O Ford into a spin. A subsequent drive-through penalty buried Van Gisbergen in the pack, seemingly prolonging the title decider until the final race.
It was however a Safety Car to recover the stranded Nissan of Dale Wood on lap 50 of 74, that put Van Gisbergen back in contention for the top five finish he needed. Restarting ninth with 20 laps to go, Van Gisbergen picked his way through Will Davison, Rick Kelly, Todd Kelly and Craig Lowndes to finally put himself in a title winning position 10 laps from home.
He didn’t stop there, however, overtaking Scott McLaughlin for fourth before attacking third placed James Courtney, who aggressively defended his position. After an intense battle, Van Gisbergen finally cleared Courtney at the start of the final lap, leaving him to secure the title in style with a podium finish.
“It’s a pretty amazing feeling,” he said. “We had a lucky Safety Car but that’s racing… what an amazing year.”
Garth Tander meanwhile used a strong mix of speed and strategy to take second in his penultimate start for the Holden Racing Team. Tander and Courtney had both jumped McLaughlin and Lowndes in the second round of stops to set up what looked like being a double HRT podium. Courtney fell from third to fifth on the final lap, with Van Gisbergen and McLaughlin both sneaking by when Courtney ran deep into Turn 1.
Lowndes also had a poor final few laps, slipping behind Rick Kelly and Davison to finish just eighth. Tim Slade and David Reynolds completed the top 10, with the latter coming from the back of the grid after a penalty for breaching post-qualifying parc ferme conditions. A dismal day for the Ford runners saw 11th placed Fabian Coulthard as the top Falcon driver. Todd Kelly was 12th after understeering into the Turn 11 tyre wall as Van Gisbergen made his way through 10 laps from home. Winterbottom lost five laps due to damage from his early incident with Van Gisbergen, eventually finishing 23rd.
Newly-minted Supercars champion van Gisbergen is already preparing himself for a Whincup onslaught next season. The Holden driver rubber stamped his title win on Sunday with victory in the final race of the season and on the streets of Sydney Olympic Park.
The championship was already wrapped up but he fought hard to beat out Holden rivals Tander and Reynolds. Tander started on pole position and was on track for a fairytale end to his time at Holden Racing Team and the outfit’s last with factory backing.
But van Gisbergen passed him on lap 20, survived three safety car interventions and contact in pitlane to hold on for the win. He celebrated with a tire-shredding burnout in front of his Red Bull Racing team – something he’s waited three years to do.
“I hooked into it – it was a pretty awesome feeling,” van Gisbergen said.
McLaughlin secured third in the championship for Volvo, denying Red Bull a historic trifecta with Lowndes slipping down to fourth. It’s the second year in a row Whincup has missed out on the Supercars crown, after collecting a record six since 2008. And van Gisbergen knows he will be hurting.
“Oh yeah, he doesn’t like losing,” he said. He’s a very motivated guy and I think he’ll come back stronger than ever next year. I’m really looking forward to the battle. It’s been awesome this year, we’ve got along really well on and off the track so I think it’s going to be good next year.”
Van Gisbergen finishes the season with eight wins and 18 podiums – 10 of them in the last 10 races. His consistency has been key, with Whincup showing the speed.
Newcastle will host the season finale from 2017, with a brand new coastline track.