McLaughlin passed Chaz Mostert for 15th to regain the points lead on the lap 58 restart, but lost it when Whincup took the lead from van Gisbergen two laps later — what ultimately was the move for the race win.
As Whincup opened up a margin out front, McLaughlin again set to passing cars one by one. He was 13th when the second and final caution of the day came out on lap 70, with exhaust debris from James Courtney’s battered machine bringing out the Safety Car once more and compressing the field ahead of a final battle.
Chaos erupted when the green flag flew on lap 73, with McLaughlin trying to get a run on Garth Tander for 12th but having to check up and getting drilled in the left rear corner as Scott Pye dive-bombed McLaughlin into turn one.
Though Pye yielded to McLaughlin before the end of the lap, it left McLaughlin chasing the two Holdens from his former team — Garry Rogers Motorsport — to get enough points to secure the title, all while a hard-charging Craig Lowndes was flying through the field on fresh tires.
Lowndes got to McLaughlin’s back bumper with 12 laps remaining and applied heavy pressure as McLaughlin tried desperately to make the two passes he needed, finally diving past Tander at turn two with six to go to come within one position of the crown.
He similarly charged on James Moffat at turn 12 coming to two to go, moving into 11th and coming into a position where he would have tied with Whincup on points, winning the tiebreaker by virtue of season victories (eight to Whincup’s four).
But Lowndes got a run on McLaughlin coming up the hill to turn two and when McLaughlin went left to block, he squeezed Lowndes into the wall and sent the veteran and three-time champion careening into the wall and ultimately off the access road with heavy damage, ending Lowndes’ day and drawing an immediate stewards’ investigation.
The decision came as Whincup crossed under the checkered flag, with a post-race pit lane penalty (applied as a 25-second time penalty) dropping McLaughlin from 11th to 18th in the final rundown and breaking the hearts of DJR Team Penske and the Ford faithful.
A distraught McLaughlin said simply that he didn’t know Lowndes was as far alongside as he was when the block was thrown.
“I lost my left-hand mirror early. I knew we were close, but I didn’t think we were that close,” McLaughlin explained. “I just defended the line into turn two and we got interlocked. I genuinely didn’t mean to push him into he wall.”
“To get pinged like that … I shouldn’t have even been (in that position) in the first place. That’s hard. To all our fans that stuck by us and all our sponsors, I’m so sorry. I wish I could have gotten it done for them … but I’m 24 years old. I’ll have another crack yet.”
Behind Whincup and van Gisbergen, David Reynolds completed the podium in third, followed by the Nissans of Rick Kelly and Michael Caruso.
In his final race as a full-time driver, Todd Kelly brought a third Nissan entry home with a solid day in 10th.
Additional reporting by Supercars Editor Jack Cobourn
Full race results can be viewed on the next page…