Motor sport fans flocked back to the Newcastle 500 on Sunday as Scott McLaughlin clinched his first Supercars crown in a tamer-than-expected finale to the 2018 championship.
Supercars announced a crowd total of 162,248 for the three days of racing, down 30,000, or 15 per cent, on the official figure last year.
The Sunday showdown had loomed as a winner-takes-all battle between McLaughlin and Holden rival Shane van Gisbergen after the latter won Saturday’s dramatic first 250km race.
But a time penalty for a pitstop violation in Saturday’s race cost van Gisbergen 51 points, and he trailed McLaughlin by 53 instead of two entering the finale.
“The bloody series took it away from us. That’s shit,” the 2016 champion said after learning of the setback on Sunday morning.
And his prediction proved correct as the gap was too much for the 29-year-old Triple Eight star to make up.
Pole-sitter Dave Reynolds won the start and led McLaughlin and van Gisbergen until all three pitted together after 20 laps.
The top two’s teammates, DJR Team Penske’s Fabian Coulthard and Triple Eight’s Jamie Whincup, came together on the same corner where they clashed on Saturday, but this time it was Coulthard who ended up in the wall entering pit straight, bringing out the safety car.
McLaughlin exited the pits as race leader, ahead of Reynolds, with van Gisbergen in fifth, and took charge of the race.
Both he and van Gisbergen pitted again mid-race, and retiring Holden legend Craig Lowndes briefly led his final event as a solo driver.
But 25-year-old McLaughlin retook the lead and never looked like suffering the kind of heartbreak he suffered last year when three time penalties in the final race handed Whincup the championship.
He increased his lead over van Gisbergen, now in fourth, to 30 seconds before backing off and allowing Reynolds to take the chequered flag. McLaughlin finished second and van Gisbergen fourth.
“I have to pay respect to Shane. We raced hard all year. It was a hell of a battle,” McLaughlin said after race.
“It was the longest 10 laps of my life. I am absolutely amazed. I just can’t believe we have done it.”
Newcastle lord mayor Nuatali Nelmes, who presented a trophy on the podium, said the weekend had cast the city in its best light.
“Businesses and Novocastrians have outdone themselves welcoming visitors and showing them a good time,” she said.
“Visitors got their first glimpse of our newly revitalised city as it's poised for a new era of tourism growth.”
More than 20 luxury cruisers and leisure boats dotted the harbour on a picture-perfect day which provided city and state officials with the television images they had hoped for when agreeing to host the event.
“The world has been watching, and an aerial of our magnificent coastal city is one of the most popular images published to our social media accounts,” Cr Nelmes said.
Supercars chief executive Sean Seamer said on Sunday that the crowd total was a “massive number by any standards”.
“We were very happy with how the entire weekend was received,” he said.
Read more: The 100 best photos from the Newcastle 500
“As we anticipated, Friday numbers were down on last year, particularly amongst the locals, as people had already experienced their first event.
“The numbers really bounced back on Saturday and Sunday. The entire precinct was really busy, with people flooding in the gates each morning.
“Every single grandstand seat was taken, and all vantage points were extremely busy.”
He said accommodation businesses had enjoyed bumper bookings and hoped “those coming from outside of the Hunter spread their wings a little further this year”.
“In all, it was another absolutely stunning weekend.
“We thank once again the people of Newcastle and the Hunter for being such amazing hosts.”
Supercars crowd figures include people working at the track and tickets issued to residents and other people who might not have been at the race.