LOWNDES CLOSES GAP TO KELLY IN THE CHASE FOR CALTEX'S FOURTH CONSECUTIVE V8 CHAMPIONSHIP
Caltex Ambassador Craig Lowndes has closed to within three points of the lead in the V8 Supercar Championship Series after finishing fourth in the opening race of the Caterpillar Grand Finale in Phillip Island in Victoria today.
Lowndes finished fourth after a tough battle for third with Mark Skaife, with championship rival Rick Kelly finishing one place behind in fifth position.
Starting from fifth on the grid, Lowndes made one position in his Caltex-backed Triple Eight Race Engineering Falcon when Jason Bright spun at Honda Hairpin on lap 16.
Lowndes then pressured Skaife right to the end of the race but could not find a way past, surviving a hairy moment when he ran wide at the high speed Hayshed corner when attempting to pass Skaife around the outside.
Lowndes now sits on 3158 points to Kelly's 3161 with two races still to be run tomorrow at the fast and challenging Victorian circuit.
Caltex Racing's Russell Ingall finished in 14th in today's opening race for the weekend, gaining two positions after starting from 16th on the grid.
Ingall chased down Dean Canto over the final laps of the 23-lap event, but in the end had to settle for 14th position.
The reigning V8 Supercar Champion will now look for further improvement in tomorrow's two races as he battles with Jason Bright and Todd Kelly for fifth in the championship.
James Courtney turned in another solid performance in his rookie V8 Supercar season, bringing the Jeld-Wen Motorsport Falcon home in a top 10 position.
Courtney finished ninth after qualifying 10th in the Top 10 Shootout, further improving his chances of finishing in the top 10 in the championship this season.
Jamie Whincup had his race turn sour on the first lap of today's opening race.
Whincup came off track at the Southern Loop in the #88 Caltex-backed Triple Eight Race Engineering Falcon after an incident with Jason Richards at the start of the race.
Whincup was delayed further when forced to serve a drive-through penalty for his part in the incident, but the Bathurst champion powered on to remain on the lead lap and finish in 26th position.
Todd Kelly won today's race ahead of Garth Tander and Mark Skaife.
Russell Ingall -- Caltex Racing Falcon
"It has been an unusual year in that a lot of the tracks we have been visiting have really deteriorated in that last 12 months," said Ingall.
"Track surface has played a big part and we are finding that a lot of the set-ups we have used in previous years just don't work.
"The teams that have that little bit of extra grip, be it aerodynamic grip or just getting on to the settings a bit quicker, have the advantage. It's really caught us out this year and Phillip Island has been no different.
"All the drivers have commented on the grip levels here and the lap times in the race are nearly two seconds a lap slower than one or two years ago. Set-up is very tricky and the window for getting it right is very small.
"We were in the window on Friday when we were fifth fastest but now it looks like we are outside of that window.
"Fortunately, James seems to have a quick car so we will plug his set-ups in for Sunday's two races and hopefully make some gains.
"While the championship contenders are battling it out we will see if we can creep up and get amongst the action at the front."
Craig Lowndes -- Triple Eight Race Engineering
"We had a good run with the car, as it's very consistent and has good pace," said Lowndes.
"Ideally, we need to find a little bit more turn for tomorrow, as it has slightly too much understeer.
"I had a great battle with Skaife, which provided the team with some heart stopping moments particularly through the Hayshed which is the fastest corner on the track and where I tested Triple Eight's cross country capabilities!
"We achieved our objective today of reducing the gap to Rick and I look forward to tomorrow's two races, which are both nine laps longer."
Jamie Whincup -- Triple Eight Race Engineering
"I was really happy to get a jump at the start and catch up to Craig, it being an opportunity to gain points in the team's championship," said Whincup.
"However putting a tyre over the tarmac's edge when exiting Turn 1 created a chain reaction and I collected Jason Richards as a result.
"It's now a chase through the field for the rest of the weekend, which was obviously not part of my plans for this weekend."
James Courtney -- Jeld-Wen Motorsport Falcon
"The Jeld-Wen car improved today and we were able to race competitively," said Courtney.
"I messed the start up myself which I was pretty annoyed about but once we got going things got better and I made some improvements in the car throughout the race.
"I caught Steven Richards at the end there and the car was running really well at that stage. When I caught him I just had the pace in the wrong areas and couldn't get past. I tried the bars in the car to tune it up a bit to get out of the last corner turn but couldn't do it.
"We are in a pretty good position for tomorrow. Our race pace was quite good, and we are a little quicker than the group in front of us.
"I just have to get the start right tomorrow, really nail it and move forward."