The V8 Supercars return to Melbourne for the Sandown 500 this weekend for the first time since 2007 to start the endurance phase of the championship.
Many drivers are happy that the traditional double-dose of endurance events of Sandown, followed by the Bathurst 1000, is back on the agenda.
The pre-Bathurst, 500km event, now sponsored by Dick Smith, has been held at Phillip Island for the past four years and now returns to its traditional stamping ground at Sandown, near Melbourne. The race was first held in 1964 as a six-hour event and again the following year.
Interest waned for the next three years but the event was resurrected as a three-hour race in 1968 and from then was regarded as a taster for the big one - Bathurst. The race returning to its spiritual home marks the 41st time it's been held and while it doesn't have the 50-year history of the grand old lady held at Mount Panorama, Sandown is a legend in its own right.
The last Sandown 500 was won by the TeamVodafone pairing of Craig Lowndes and Jamie Whincup in 2007, who finished in front of the Toll HSV Dealer Team Commodore of Rick Kelly and Paul Radisich with the Castrol/Ford Performance Racing Falcon of Steve Richards and Owen Kelly rounding out the podium.
These days you won't see the main game drivers sharing duties in the same car for the endurance as the rules were changed in 2010. Now, only one regular V8SC driver can be in a pairing and the other driver has to come from the feeder development series, or another championship.
Of particular interest to Kiwis is the reappearance of four-time Bathurst winner Greg Murphy who is returning after back surgery. He's aware he may be a bit rusty, but with Owen Kelly sharing the driving, Murphy, who is always game-on in longer events, is ready to give it a go.
"The back's great and won't be a problem this weekend," Murphy said. It's hard to believe it was back in May that I last drove. It's been a big part of the year that I haven't been competing and it's good to be back in the job. It's going to be pretty tough but we have the experience in endurance racing a few of the younger ones don't."
Jamie Whincup leads Mark Winterbottom by just one point with 154 points separating Whincup from fourth-placed Craig Lowndes. It's the closest championship battle heading into the enduros since the existing points system was introduced in 2008. By comparison, Whincup led Lowndes by 98 points this time last year, with a whopping 477 points back to fourth-placed Rick Kelly.
"Sandown is a track I love - it is where I debuted, won my first race and having won the 500 before I know just what it means to the team if we were to do it again," said Winterbottom, who is partnered with Steven Richards.
"It's good to be going back to Sandown. It's better than Phillip Island and I'm really looking forward to it and I really enjoy working with a co-driver. I'm a fan of it.
"I think it's one of the two tracks our car is the best on."
One of the Kiwis to keep an eye on is Fabian Coulthard, paired with David Besnard in the Lockwood BJR car. SBR's Shane van Gisbergen may be further up the championship table than Coulthard at the moment, but it's the other Kiwi who is building a solid reputation as the best of the rest.
"I'm really looking forward to working with Bessy and getting the first endurance race done and heading off to Bathurst," Coulthard said.
"Our cars are pretty good on tyre life. This year has been a solid year and we're comfortably eighth in the championship and not far off sixth."
The winners of the Dick Smith Sandown 500 on Sunday will earn 200 championship points and be deemed winners of race 20 of the V8SC, regardless of the number of points they scored over the weekend.By Eric Thompson