After a short period of intermission, the Supercars championship has escaped the cold weather and travelled north to the Top End for the start of a crucial middle third of the 2018 title race.
The Darwin Triple Crown again provided intrigue, with the teams and drivers on form at the previous Winton SuperSprint round again coming to the fore as well as a resurgence of form for the championship’s dark horse.
Here are the key talking points from Darwin, from an important milestone for the championship leaders to David Reynolds’s classic grip on being a wordsmith.
Century of wins for Dick Johnson
Already having delivered records and milestones in his short tenure at DJR Team Penske, Scott McLaughlin has now notched up the 100th race win in Australian touring cars for the legendary Dick Johnson name.
Aboard the iconic #17, digits that bear significant importance to Johnson, who is a five-time champion of this category, McLaughlin pulled off a strategic undercut in Race 15 en route to his sixth win of 2018.
Having started from second the grid, breaking the Kiwi’s streak of pole positions, McLaughlin was pitted early by his engineer Ludo Lacroix and then had to defend hard at the end of the race against Shane van Gisbergen and David Reynolds.
DJR came into existence in 1981 and has since won seven championships, including team owner Johnson’s five in the journey towards 100 race wins.
Three of those wins have included Bathurst 1000 victories, the last of which came in 1994 when Johnson and teammate John Bowe steered their Shell-branded Ford Falcon to the win.
Since 2015 Johnson has become a minority owner of the team, with US heavyweight Roger Penske having invested into the Queensland-based outfit. The first win of this fruitful partnership came in Tasmania early in 2017, with Fabian Coulthard delivering the honours.
A further 18 wins between Coulthard and McLaughlin has brought the great team to that important milestone of 100 wins.
Erebus back in the hunt
The last couple of rounds have been quiet ones for the championship dark horses in Erebus Motorsport, but a return to the front of the grid for Race 15 signalled a return to form.
A maiden pole position for David Reynolds in 2018 didn’t yield the victory that the Holden outfit required, with a gamble on a late pit stop not paying dividends, though the consolation third place was still a solid boost of points.
Race 16 then saw a flawless race from the 32-year-old, taking the lead of the race heading into turn one and not giving it up, winning his second race of the season.
Rookie Anton de Pasquale impressed again, punching in a career-best qualifying performance on Saturday to be third on the grid. His result of 11th in the race was perhaps not indicative of the form shown by the 22-year-old, but he continues to show these glimpses of someone not far off a podium result in his maiden campaign.
A maiden berth in the top-ten shootout too was a highlight for De Pasquale ahead of Race 16. He ultimately qualified tenth.
Reynolds gets his elbows out
One of the major criticisms about Reynolds in his career thus far has been his lack of mongrel when it comes to fighting for position on track, and the Darwin Triple Crown has seen the Erebus driver shake that.
Having made a timid start to 2018, gaining the reputation for leaving the door open for Van Gisbergen in Adelaide, Reynolds was the aggressor this time out, especially with his bold sweep of the front row heading into turn one in Race 16.
Starting from fourth on the grid, Reynolds made the better start than pole sitter Rick Kelly and McLaughlin in the leading positions. The Holden driver kept the foot on the gas and, in his own words, “Hung his balls out,” going around the outside at turn one to round up the lot of them.
From there the pace was controlled by Reynolds for the 70-lap race, and the shoey was deservedly enjoyed on the podium post-race as he reeled the championship leader in to a deficit of 327 points.
McLaughlin’s Sunday ‘hero’ drive
Race 16 was a more difficult affair for the championship leader, having encountered overheating issues in his Shell V-Power Racing Falcon, which plagued the Ford driver’s race.
Early in the race McLaughlin’s Falcon started to emit smoke out of the rear of the car and all over the windscreen of Kelly in the Nissan. The team remained calm while everyone else had concerns that it could have been a terminal issue.
Couple that with a lack of cool air being fed into the cockpit and the enduring heat of Darwin would have intensified for McLaughlin, meaning that he’d have to keep a cool head across the long race.
Having driven around the issue, utilising the fresh air on the pit straight on the dirty side of the track and having to lift off the gas in pursuit of the win, McLaughlin was able to limit the damage and come home second ahead of title rival Jamie Whincup.
The net result in terms of the championship is that the Kiwi comes out of Darwin with a 161-point lead over Van Gisbergen, who recovered to fourth in 200-kilometre Sunday race from 11th on the grid.
Tickford’s glorified test weekend
Following a dismal outing on Saturday for all four Tickford cars, 2014 Bathurst 1000 winner Chaz Mostert came out ahead of Race 16 on Sunday, stating that it will be “another test day” for the beleaguered Ford outfit.
Neither of the four cars, boasting the likes of Bathurst winner Mostert and former Supercars champ Mark Winterbottom, had qualified or finished in the top ten in either of the races comprising the Darwin Triple Crown.
Winterbottom endured his worst qualifying in the category on Sunday since Homebush in 2012, being only 24th fastest – though was able to race back to 13th just behind his teammate Mostert.
There was more trouble for embattled rookie Richie Stanaway, who on Saturday was in the wars with James Courtney late in the race, with the Walkinshaw driver later penalised $1000 for the hit on the Kiwi.
Lack of pace in qualifying is cited for Tickford’s continual woes given the gains made by Winterbottom and Mostert during Race 16, demonstrating the importance of getting those high grid positions and avoiding carnage at the rear.