Opening laps don’t get more chaotic than this!
Nine long months of racing has led to what will be an enthralling finale on the streets of Newcastle, with the 2018 Supercars champion waiting to be crowned after 500 more kilometres of action.
A clash of heavyweights DJR Team Penske and Triple Eight will see the final standoff between Kiwi rivals Scott McLaughlin and Shane van Gisbergen, with only a 14-point buffer separating the pair.
The 25-year-old McLaughlin stood in the same position 12 months ago – he was on the brink of a maiden championship before it unravelled before him in an error-laden Sunday race that saw Jamie Whincup dramatically claim his seventh crown.
Van Gisbergen, now 29, has already one championship to his credit, having beaten teammate Whincup in 2016 to claim the ultimate prize in Supercars in his maiden season with Triple Eight.
Where McLaughlin’s stance differs from last year’s unfortunate outcome is that in 2018 he has demonstrated a newfound maturity, and despite being the benchmark for pole positions and race wins, he has accumulated the points when he has been outpaced by his Red Bull rivals.
This approach would be vindicated if this composure yields what the young Kiwi desires at the conclusion of the Newcastle 500, which in its debut season provided plenty of carnage in the concrete jungle.
Breaking his drought of wins, which stretched back to Ipswich at the most recent race in New Zealand, he has re-dialled his car at the most crucial part of the season.
There was concern through events such as the Sydney SuperNight, Bend SuperSprint and the Sandown 500 that he and his Shell V-Power Team had lost their way, though since their return to the podium at Bathurst it has been evenly contested.
For Van Gisbergen, it was a usual slow start to the season following success at the curtain-raising Adelaide 500. Clean-sweeping the South Australian classic, it wasn’t until Townsville midway through the season that the Red Bull driver was to win another race.
Since then, he and Red Bull have capitalised on their rival’s form slump to take the championship lead into the Enduro Cup before surrendering it following a messy Race 26 at the Gold Coast 600.
Most recently the Auckland SuperSprint saw both contenders take a win apiece to set up what should be a thrilling conclusion in Newcastle.
The role of the teammates will also prove to be decisive, with Van Gisbergen’s corner heavily supported by stablemates Whincup and even Craig Lowndes, who will make his final full-time Supercars appearance this weekend.
Van Gisbergen has benefitted from having his teammates in form, with Whincup and Lowndes both having achieved multiple race wins this season, while Fabian Coulthard for DJR Team Penske has a paltry tally by comparison.
It’s difficult to pick who will walk away as champion, but the wounds of the year gone by will drive McLaughlin towards a maiden title.
A second crown for Van Gisbergen would solidify his presence as a champion as well as futureproof Triple Eight’s success beyond the Lowndes and Whincup era.
Regardless of who wins, the 2018 championship has been a riveting one, with many twists and turns leading to another title-deciding weekend on the gruelling streets of Newcastle.