For the second year in a row, the Newcastle 500 lived up to the hype of delivering a thrilling final round of the Supercars championship as the title was decided in the last race of the year yet again.
Novocastrians and general fans of the series were treated to another epic duel to the championship between the king Kiwis with the battle for the season’s honours coming down to just 71 points after 31 races.
It was a big weekend of racing, going the distance in both races which caught at least one big name out in the first race but the final race of the season saw the champion crowned in convincing form.
- Scott McLaughlin had demons chasing him from losing the championship in agonising circumstances back in 2017 but this year’s Newcastle 500 was to be his year, nearly taking the full 300 points on offer en route to winning his maiden championship. The likeable Kiwi went in to the round leading the title fight by 14 points and started things off in the best way by taking pole for race one. While he led for most of the race, being short filled to the end saw him come up two corners short with fuel, giving the lead to his rival Shane van Gisbergen and limping home in second. However, a post race penalty for car 97 meant McLaughlin took the win, going in to Sunday’s final race only needing to finish sixth at best to win the title regardless of where van Gisbergen finished. Significantly faster car pace meant that task was never a problem, again leading a decent portion of the race and only handing over the lead in the final laps to play the safe card, earning himself the title. After winning 17 races in car #17, McLaughlin’s championship win was the 17th and final for Ford’s Falcon which is being retired in place of the Mustang next year. Looking to hold on to the #17 next year, McLaughlin will again take aim at the championship as he looks to emerge as one of the future stars of the sport.
- David Reynolds showed himself to be the not-so-quiet quiet achiever of 2018 and kept that form going into the final round of the year, looking to remind everyone why he’s regarded as the dark horse of the championship. The 2017 Bathurst winner had no pressure on him in Newcastle, being out of the title hunt but with good speed which would see him feature at the front of the field. Starting from seventh for race one, Reynolds fought his way to the pointy end of the pack, ending up on the last step of the podium before van Gisbergen’s penalty saw him promoted to second. He carried the confidence through to race 31, taking pole position for the last 250km of racing for the year and he converted well off the line, dictating the pace of the race early on. Despite being jumped by McLaughlin in the pit stops, he fought his way back in the closing laps, applying pressure to the back of the champion elect who decided to step aside for the faster Erebus car. Reynolds took the flag, making it a perfect record if finishing on the podium in every final race of the year since joining Erebus in 2016. This year has showed that the small Melbourne team are genuine title contenders and could threaten to dethrone the big budget team in the near future.
- James Courtney endured a low key yet consistent weekend at Newcastle, ending up fourth in total points earned over the round after two top ten finishes. The 2010 series champion went through a winless 2018 campaign, having to go without standing on the top step of the podium despite team-mate Scott Pye breaking through for his first back in March. Qualifying eighth for race one, Courtney moved up a spot by the end of the race to come home seventh, a few spots down on Pye who finished fourth. Featuring in the top ten shootout for Sunday, Courtney lined up sixth on the grid though team owner Ryan Walkinshaw commented that he was disappointed in the result, saying his driver left too much on the table. For the second day in a row, Courtney improved by one spot during the race and battled with van Gisbergen before the race, and season, ended. Going in to his ninth season with the ex-Holden factory team, Courtney will want to feature at the front more next year as pressure mounts from within the Walkinshaw Andretti United team.
- Red Bull Holden may have won the teams championship before getting to Newcastle but their form over the most crucial weekend of the year was seemingly lacking, a factor in the driver’s championship not going their way this year. For their main man, Shane van Gisbergen, a last-gasp win in race one thanks to McLaughlin running out of fuel was to set up a do-or-die, winner takes all race on Sunday, trailing by just two points. However, his car was dropped while still being refuelled in his final pit stop, triggering a post-race investigation which resulted in a 25 second penalty, dropping him to fifth in the final order. While the pressure was on to perform on Sunday, car 97 was nowhere throughout the day, finishing a distant fourth which meant even if he hadn’t been penalised from the day before, he would’ve lost the championship. Jamie Whincup finished third in both races, despite ending up in the turn 12 fence thanks to Fabian Coulthard in Saturday’s race while trying to be a good wing man to his team-mate. He was lucky to go unpunished after returning serve on the #12 in Sunday’s race at the same spot though like van Gisbergen, he didn’t have the pace to fight up front. For the second year in a row, the best team of the year didn’t produce the champion driver though second and third in the individual standings are a small consolation to the factory Holden team drivers.
- Fabian Coulthard played the part as the perfect team-mate over the race weekend, helping McLaughlin to win the title for DJR Team Penske but it wasn’t without the Kiwi acting as a sacrificial lamb. Qualifying up at the pointy end at the most important time, last year’s title contender was fighting at the front when he ran Whincup wide at turn 12, taking him out of contention for the win which would’ve threatened McLaughlin up front. Unfortunately, a loose car into turn one sent Coulthard into the wall a few laps later, being collected by Nick Percat which took them both out of the race. The fortunately timed safety car fell rights into the hands of McLaughlin while Coulthard picked up the scraps of car 12. Qualifying tenth for the final race, Coulthard wasn’t able to play himself into the race before again clashing with Whincup, this time ending up in the wall himself. Despite no mechanical damage to his car, a dislodged rear wing brought out the safety car, again helping McLaughlin. Though he ended up classified last, Coulthard’s hard weekend was overshadowed by his team’s success, something he’ll want to be further part of next season.
- Lee Holdsworth has seemingly bowed out of driving full-time in the Supercars championship in a way which best reflected his last few seasons with Team 18. The now veteran racer surprised all when he ended practice one on the top of the timesheets, carrying that form through to qualifying where he lined up fifth on the grid. A top five or possible podium finish was on the cards until, when leading the field to the restart, Holdsworth seemingly jumped the gun by accelerating while yellow flags were still being shown, having to take a drive through penalty. This dropped him to 12th at the chequered flag, well down on where he should have finished. He started Sunday’s race from the same spot as the day before in fifth spot, again fighting near the front until incidents and a lack of pace through the race saw him drop back to ninth. With Holdsworth out of a drive next year, his form at Newcastle sent a message to the paddock that he’s still got some fight left though with not many seats remaining, it’s hard to imagine him coming back full-time.
For now, we take a break though the off-season will still be busy behind the scenes. Drivers go to their new homes, Ford teams develop the new Mustang and everyone has to readjust to a new season calendar for 2019. It’s under 100 days until we start the year off in Adelaide and if the past few years are anything to go by, we’re set for another great season of Supercars action.