It would be huge, it’s everything I’ve worked for since I was a kid.”- Supercars championship leader Scott MacLaughlin
It was as if the script had already been written.
The Supercars trophy going on the line again at the second, season-ending Newcastle 500.
And by Sunday afternoon, just one of the two final contenders will be crowned champion for 2018.
TRACK CHANGE: Light tracks to be covered at Newcastle 500
Remarkably, 12 months on from a heartbreaking late title loss at the inaugural event in front of Novocastrians, Scott McLaughlin returns to the recently established street circuit in search of his maiden silverware.
Main difference this time around reigning premier Jamie Whincup sits third overall and out of contention, replaced by Holden teammate and 2016 winner Shane van Gisbergen as the new challenger.
Only a margin of 14 points separate the top two Supercars drivers this campaign, which started eight months ago, after 29 races across 15 meets in Australia and New Zealand.
Kiwi natives McLaughlin (3656 points) and van Gisbergen (3642) are both fresh from a victory each at the most recent outing, held on their side of the Tasman Sea in Auckland earlier this month.
Now the stage is set for another grand finale to decide the Supercars championship in the Hunter region.
McLaughlin just wants to reverse the 2017 result.
“It would be huge, it’s everything I’ve worked for since I was a kid,” the 25-year-old told the Newcastle Herald while standing on the home straight near the soon-to-be finish line.
“I’ve still got plenty of time on my side if it doesn’t happen this year, luckily, but certainly just to get it done would be fantastic.
“It would be a massive tick of the box.”
Van Gisbergen, who has been both champion and runner-up during his decade-long Supercars career, said he was doing all he could to avoid dreaming about glory at Newcastle.
“I’m not even thinking about that,” the 29-year-old told the Newcastle Herald just 72 hours out from Friday’s practice sessions.
“We’ve got two massive races coming up so we’re just trying to have the best car we can on the grid on those two days and get through it with no mistakes and perform at our best.
“I’m not thinking about the end result. There’s no dreams here, we’ve got to get the work done and then have some fun.”
McLaughlin has won a season-high eight races in 2018, equal to his efforts last year and one ahead of van Gisbergen.
His ability to find the chequered flag remains unquestioned, but one of the biggest tests facing McLaughlin will be the mental game following a horror final day at the first Newcastle 500.
“There’s a lot of pressure, obviously everyone’s talking about last year and all that sort of stuff but I’m genuinely excited. It’s the last race of the year, the last week of school you could say,” he said.
“It [last year] is always going to come up, it’s inevitable. I can’t control that, so I’ll just worry about what I can control in regards to how my performance is on track and hopefully the cards fall our way.”
This time last year McLaughlin won the Saturday race and looked poised to hold aloft the Supercars trophy in front of Customs House, but just 24 hours later almost everything that could go wrong did go wrong.
He started the Sunday race from pole position and with a 78-point series lead over nearest rival Whincup, but suffered three penalties along the way.
Firstly for speeding on his maiden entry to pit lane early in proceedings and followed by a 15-second punishment on the 47th lap after making contact with Simona de Silvestro.
He also survived a near take out after a safety car restart on lap 70.
But the last, and most devastating, sanction occurred on the penultimate lap of the 250-kilometre trip after fighting back to have the championship within grasp.
Needing to finish 11th or better to secure the title, McLaughlin moved to that position only to be overtaken shortly after up the Watt Street straight.
In an attempt to wrestle back the spot on the same stretch of track McLaughlin collided with Whincup’s teammate Craig Lowndes, who struck the inside wall and blew a tyre.
Upon review McLaughlin was slapped with a 25-second penalty as he crossed the finish line and slipped back to 18th, handing race winner Whincup an unprecedented seventh trophy by just 21 points.
“I wouldn’t change how hard I defended,” McLaughlin said.
“Obviously turn one, if I didn’t make that mistake who knows what would have happened. I get a little bit sideways on the entry there.
“But no, everything happens for a reason. It was just one of those things and I was doing what I thought was right. Unfortunately we just fell short.”
Van Gisbergen hasn’t quite had the same Supercars experience, but is ready for this upcoming battle to go down to the wire.
“The New Zealand Supertourers went down to the last round a few years ago and three of us could win it,” van Gisbergen said.
“But with my Supercars championship, it was Jamie [Whincup] and I, and I had a slight lead so it was alright.
“This one, we’re basically starting the weekend on equal points. Scott [McLaughlin] is only just that little bit ahead so it comes down to who does it best over those two races, which is hopefully going to make people tune in and turn up.”
As a child van Gisbergen, who grew up in the south of Auckland, was introduced to all things on wheels by his rally-driving father.
“I was always going to races and watching and then I got into quad bikes and speedway and stuff like that,” he said.
“When I was 13 or 14 I won a scholarship to race cars in New Zealand out of a magazine, which was pretty cool.
“I thought I’d always do speedway or motorbike racing, but I ended up changing to cars and the rest is history.”
Van Gisbergen credits his early introduction to Supercars, aged 18 in 2007, as a tough but important launching pad to life in the professional fast lane.
“I was a bit young and inexperienced. I got thrown in the deep end and had to learn quick,” he said.
“I was lucky I had patient people supporting me, the Stone brothers. They knew at my age it was pretty to tough jump in and compete against the likes of Russell Ingall, Mark Skaife, Greg Murphy and all the big names of the day.
“It was probably two years before I was really competitive every week and eventually a contender.”
McLaughlin was also raised on New Zealand’s north island, but in the nearby city of Hamilton.
“Mum and dad go-karted before I was born,” he said.
‘I went to a have-a-go day in New Zealand when I was six years old, but I couldn’t race until I was seven.
“It all sort of started then.”
Family and friends of the drivers will be making the trek across the ditch.
Van Gisbergen actually had connections on this week’s first direct flight to Newcastle from Auckland and described the city as “one of the best places I’ve been in Australia”.
Both are proud Kiwis and want to follow in the footsteps of fellow New Zealanders – four-time Australian Touring Car Championship winner Jim Richards (1985, 1987, 1990, 1991) and Robbie Francevic (1986).
“Whether it goes our way or not I can be proud of how I bounced back this year,” McLaughlin said.
“I think I’ve proved a lot of people wrong and come back probably stronger than ever. I’m proud to be in this scenario and I’ll try to enjoy it as much as I can.”
Two practice sessions (11:40am, 3:15pm) take place on Friday. Qualifying (11:35am) and race one (3:45pm) follow on Saturday. Sunday’s program will be qualifying (10:50am), top-10 shootout (12:50pm) and race two (3:40pm).
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