Cruel Fortune – Sydney NRMA Motoring & Services 500, race one

WHIN: Jamie Whincup on way to victory.

HOLDEN ON: Jamie Whincup on way to victory.

Street circuits don’t come much more fearsome than the concrete jungle that winds in and around the Sydney Olympic Park precinct, and the second-last race of the 2013 V8 Supercar championship took no prisoners from the 28 combatants vying for one of the last two wins of the year.

Underlining this event is the story of the overall title fight. Three drivers – Holden drivers and Red Bull teammates Jamie Whincup and Craig Lowndes, and Ford Performance Racing’s Mark Winterbottom – come into this weekend with deadly serious intent; to hoist the championship trophy at the end of the weekend.

The stage was set for a cracking twilight race on a balmy blue-sky day in Sydney when Winterbottom and Whincup locked out the front row of the grid after qualifying. Whincup is looking to join the sport’s greatest drivers of all time by claiming a fifth title; Winterbottom, who was born in Doonside in Sydney’s west, just wants his first. As the elder statesman of the paddock, it’s been 14 years since Craig ‘The Kid’ Lowndes claimed his last championship title – and he’s fitter, faster and hungrier than ever.

As the light drew in over Homebush, the early going of the 76-lap race was frenetic. Winterbottom and Lowndes tangled early, with the Ford driver knocking Lowndes’ car into a half spin, though neither lost positions or speed in the fracas. The fallout post-race, though, could possibly shape the picture of Sunday’s season finale, once the meeting stewards have mulled over the evidence…

Up front, Whincup, who has never even stood on the podium of the Sydney NRMA 500, kept his head, punching out fast lap after fast lap in the lead as his rivals squabbled over the minor placings. Tekno Racing duo Jonathan Webb and Shane van Gisbergen ran interference all afternoon, while the Brad Jones Racing machine of Fabian Coulthard ran faultlessly towards the front all day.

Lowndes, meanwhile, fell victim to cruel misfortune late in the race, with a refuelling issue on car 888 necessitating a late-race pit stop that took him out of the top ten and buried him way, way down in the order.

Coulthard’s day came to a crushing end at the hand of a banzai move by young Kiwi van Gisbergen, hitting the fence hard and undoing 73 laps of excellent effort.

But fate played an even more dastardly trick on Winterbottom, who fell victim to a slowing car in front of him, careening off the fence and into retirement from the race. His championship aspirations retired with him, and the reigning champion look all but set to wrap up his fifth crown tomorrow afternoon. All his has to do is to finish in 21st spot to win. “I’m not going to just cruise around, though,” he told NRMA. “I’m here to race, and I’ll go out tomorrow and give it a crack.”

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