V8 Supercars series leader Craig Lowndes says there’s no doubt defending champion Jamie Whincup will bounce back from his early-season woes but, right now, he’s relishing the edge he holds over his once-dominant teammate.
Lowndes extended his championship lead over Ford’s Mark Winterbottom to 49 points on Friday with a third-place finish in the opening race of this weekend’s round at Auckland’s Pukekohe circuit.
Holden veteran Jason Bright won the Anzac Day race – his first of 2014 – ahead of local hero Shane van Gisbergen in second.
But it was a horror afternoon for Whincup.
The 31-year-old started from second and had the jump on polesitter Bright to take an immediate lead in the 100km race, but was unexpectedly forced out midway through with power steering issues.
Whincup had been eager to turn things around across the ditch after a poor showing at the last round in Winton sent him from second to fifth on the drivers’ standings.
“We were really disappointed with today,” he said.
“Unfortunately, another 50 points missed is costly at this early stage in the championship but I guess it’s just the way it goes.
“We’ve still got another three races to go, so we’re optimistic – onwards and upwards.”
Lowndes was at a loss to explain why Triple Eight weren’t as dominant as they’d been in seasons past, but insisted it wasn’t the end of their title-winning ways.
“At the moment, we’ve been lucky to be on the podium, but our cars are still not fast enough,” he said.
“We need to lift our act on that a little bit.
“But to have a bad run and still be able to extend your lead, I think it’s been a great day.
“We’ve still got to lift our game tomorrow and Sunday – that’s for sure.
“If I can go away from this weekend leading a championship, I’m really confident we can have a strong second half of the season – which we normally have had.”
Whincup – who also crashed out during practice – has a new engineer this season in David Cauchi, after the man who helped guide him to his previous five crowns, Mark Dutton, was promoted to team manager.
But with 10 rounds still remaining, Lowndes, runner-up to Whincup the past three years, is tipping a recovery.
“Whether he’s too far gone now to bounce back to win a championship, who knows? But he’ll bounce back,” he said.
“He’s a strong character. I think he’s enjoying it at the moment. He’s had such a great run of championships and races. He’s still dedicated; he’s still focused.
“I don’t think his process has changed. I think he’s had a little bit of bad luck.”
Two more 100km races will be run on Saturday, before a mini-marathon 200km battle on Sunday.