Rick Kelly snatched a famous win for Nissan Motorsport in a stunning conclusion to the opening leg of the Winton SuperSprint.
Just days after Nissan announced it will withdraw its support of the Kelly family-owned team at season’s end, Kelly scored the manufacturer’s first win in nearly two years.
It also marked the 2006 champion’s first race win since November ’11, a full 210 races ago, when the team campaigned Holden Commodores.
Kelly held off Scott Pye over the dying laps after Scott McLaughlin, who had dominated the race from pole, slid wide on a Safety Car restart with eight of the 40 laps to go.
Pye had almost 20-lap fresher tyres than Kelly but could not find a way by and, in the end, only narrowly held off Shane van Gisbergen, who completed the podium.
McLaughlin ended up trailing home team-mate Fabian Coulthard in fifth place, leaving the spotlight well and truly on Kelly and Nissan.
“I’m trying to hold it all back,” said Kelly of the emotion. “It was pretty quiet on the radio, I think everyone’s pretty overwhelmed.
“I knew we were in a little bit of trouble there at the restart, Scotty was pretty straight and I knew we had a lot of build-up on the tyres.
“I was hoping it wasn’t just us, sure enough it wasn’t, he had a big wobble through [Turn] 1 and 2 and I got enough off my tyres to sneak up the inside of him.
“I’m pretty proud of that, the Castrol rig today was obviously incredible, the guys have put so much in to get us into this situation and we got the win. I’m pretty happy.”
McLaughlin had won the start, leading fellow front-row qualifying team-mate Coulthard to battle the Nissans of Michael Caruso and Kelly into Turn 1.
The trio arrived three-wide and, after some side-to-side contact through the opening bends, it was Caruso who emerged ahead from Kelly, Coulthard, Tim Slade and Pye.
The front-runners remained line astern until Nissan attempted an undercut with Caruso on lap six in a race where early tyre changes were possible due to the low degradation.
Shell V-Power Racing reacted by pitting McLaughlin the following lap, returning to the track comfortably ahead.
Kelly had followed McLaughlin in and rejoined narrowly ahead of his team-mate, before Caruso’s woes were compounded a lap later when Coulthard pulled a similar trick.
The race then settled into a rhythm, with a yet-to-pit Pye leading the way on the road, but McLaughlin appearing well and truly in control.
Pye finally pitted on lap 25, rejoining between Coulthard and Caruso and, with the benefit of fresher tyres, passed the Shell Ford two laps later.
Van Gisbergen pitted two laps after Pye, leaping from 14th on the grid to rejoin from his lap 26 pitstop – which was delayed by a slow tyre change – in sixth.
The Kiwi passed Caruso for fifth moments before a dispute between Tim Blanchard and Simona De Silvestro spat the former into the Turn 4 gravel, triggering the Safety Car.
McLaughlin’s mistake on the restart defined the race; marginally too deep into Turn 1, the Shell Ford lacked momentum out of Turn 2 and was gobbled up by the pack.
“The surface of the tyre was really cold, I went through the last corner, came onto the straight and thought ‘ooh, Turn 1’s going to be interesting’,” recounted McLaughlin.
“It was, unfortunately, but for the team it’s good to get fourth and fifth when the other guys [title contenders] are having a bad day. Unfortunately, the win there went away from us.
“We had a fast car, the Safety Car came at the wrong time for us. We maybe should’ve went a little longer with that first stop, just covering some people off, but you’re racing who you’re racing.”
Caruso ended up sixth behind McLaughlin, while Slade, Garth Tander – who had started just 20th – James Courtney and Mark Winterbottom completed the top 10.
Jamie Whincup started 11th and finished just 17th after an aggressive strategy of being the first to pit on lap five failed to pay off.
It was an even more disastrous race for David Reynolds, who after qualifying 17th, found himself in the thick of the opening-lap action.
Reynolds was forced to take evasive action when Jack Le Brocq tagged fellow rookie Richie Stanaway into a spin at Turn 4.
Still getting back up to speed at Turn 5, Reynolds and Simona De Silvestro made contact, breaking the steering on the Erebus Holden, which eventually finished 25th.
Cameron Waters was the only non-finisher, pitting with a driveline failure after 28 laps.
Fabian Coulthard made the most of a poor start from team-mate Scott McLaughlin to end his victory drought in the second leg of the Winton SuperSprint.
At the end of the 200km contest, Coulthard took the flag 11 seconds clear of Shane van Gisbergen, who charged from seventh on the grid to prove the Shell Ford’s only threat.
Polesitter McLaughlin dropped to eighth on the opening lap but recovered to third, minimising the damage to his championship lead.
Rick Kelly failed to repeat his opening-race heroics, but banked a solid fourth ahead of Nissan team-mate Michael Caruso, and yesterday’s second-placed man Scott Pye.
For Coulthard, it was his first Supercars victory since August 2017 – a full 22 races ago – and marked a strong turnaround from a tough start to the season.
“It was fantastic. I can’t thank my guys enough,” said Coulthard, who became the eighth different winner in 14 races during 2018.
“The Shell V-Power car was on rails today; it was a pleasure to drive.
“I’m not sure what happened to Scotty, it was unfortunate. It would’ve been nice to have two Shell Ford cars come through the first two corners one and two, but it wasn’t to be.”
Van Gisbergen, who had been involved in a contentious clash with Mark Winterbottom in ARMOR ALL Qualifying, relished his fight in the race.
“I haven’t driven that hard for a long time,” he said.
“Just pushing hard the whole way, the car was awesome. We had a fantastic weekend, top points [for the weekend after third on Saturday].
“[It’s] really good and a Kiwi one, two, three for the first time.”
Coulthard made the most of his team-mate’s poor getaway to lead Caruso, Kelly, Chaz Mostert, Pye, Jamie Whincup and van Gisbergen through the opening corners.
McLaughlin had entered Turn 1 level with Pye but, out of position, was shuffled behind the Red Bull entries through 3 and 4.
The Shell team reacted by pitting McLaughlin on lap four, short-fuelling the #17 Ford, which was immediately the fastest car on track when it returned.
Surprisingly, the none of the front-runners covered the move, with third-placed Kelly the next to pit a full six laps later.
Caruso, Pye and Whincup all pitted in the next two laps, returning to the track in that order, all behind the charging McLaughlin, but in front of Kelly, who’d taken a long fuel fill.
Coulthard, van Gisbergen and Tim Slade ran extended first stints, finally pitting together on lap 21.
When the stops shook out Coulthard led McLaughlin by just over a second, with Caruso, Pye, Whincup and Kelly giving chase.
Coulthard pulled five seconds clear of the chasing pack before McLaughlin, Caruso and Pye took their second stops together on lap 29, one lap after Kelly, and one before Whincup.
After those stops, the order was McLaughlin, Kelly, Caruso, Pye and Whincup – settling in for the run home while Coulthard, van Gisbergen and Slade again stretched their stint.
Coulthard finally took his second service on lap 38 and dropped back in with a comfortable, seven-second advantage over McLaughlin.
Van Gisbergen followed four laps later and emerged three seconds behind McLaughlin, who had in turn pulled clear of the Nissans.
The 2016 champion closed down McLaughlin and made a clean pass for second on lap 50, by which point he was 7.5s adrift of Coulthard, who cruised to the finish.
With the results, McLaughlin leads van Gisbergen by 131 points in the championship after 14 races.
Rain threatened in the final stint but, despite increasingly dark skies, never eventuated.
The lack of Safety Cars created some big gaps by the finish – fourth-placed Kelly completed the distance 25s behind Coulthard.
Filling seventh through 10th at the flag were Slade, Whincup and the Tickford duo of Richie Stanaway and Mostert.
Stanaway drove strongly to convert his 10th-place grid slot into the first top 10 finish of his rookie season, while Mostert slipped progressively down the order after qualifying fifth.
Andre Heimgartner started 12th and finished 11th, while Craig Lowndes performed another recovery drive, hauling 12th out of a 23rd place qualifying effort.
James Courtney had a fraught race, including early contact with Anton De Pasquale and Jack Le Brocq – the latter incident resulting in the Mobil 1 Boost entry clouting the tyre wall at Turn 2.
The 2010 champ then had another series of battles in the closing stages, taking the flag 14th but dropping to 19th after a 15-second penalty for spinning Garth Tander on lap 49.
Cameron Waters’ horror weekend featured a driveshaft failure on the warm-up lap, the same issue that had affected the Monster Ford early in the Saturday race.
He took to the track five laps down and to bank points in 26th, while team-mate Winterbottom also had a joyless outing, struggling to 20th.
The next round of the Virgin Australia Supercars Championship is the CrownBet Darwin Triple Crown on June 15-17.