• MICHELLE MEEHAN - Features Writer

Still Plenty of Fuel in the Tank for Craig Lowndes

He’s the most popular V8 driver in Australian motorsport, with an unrivalled record on the track and a support base that breaks through traditional race fan rivalries.

Now, after more than two decades behind the wheel, Craig Lowndes is taking his foot off the accelerator, announcing his retirement from full-time driving.

The Triple Eight Race Engineering driver will offer a final farewell to fans the only way he knows how, with a full-throttle performance in the last race of the 2018 Supercars Championship – the Newcastle 500.

Returning to the specially-built street circuit for the second consecutive year, the Newcastle 500 will be held from November 23-25, offering Hunter fans an up-close and personal chance to show their support for one of the true icons of the sport.

After a controversial crash forced Lowndes out of the race with just two laps to go in 2017, the 44-year-old will be hoping for a far more satisfying finale in Newcastle this month.

“Newcastle was a spectacular track … I love the circuit, love the layout, the infrastructure is great. I've not spoken to any driver that doesn't like it,” he told Intouch Magazine late last month.

“Last year's results didn't, unfortunately, go our way with the last lap; it’s something that we’re certainly not wanting to repeat.

“For me, I've already done two of the three things that hopefully we can achieve (to finish this season), and the last one is to try and maintain fourth position in the championship. We’ve got a reasonably healthy gap over Dave Reynolds, but with 600 points up for grabs (in the final two rounds of the season) it's still obviously a position where we need to keep defending and make sure we score points.”

Regardless of how he performs in Newcastle, Lowndes has already achieved somewhat of a fairy-tale finish for his final full-time season.

Since announcing his retirement plans in July, the driver has claimed the coveted Bathurst 1000 title - for the seventh time in his career – which in turn helped Lowndes and teammate Steven Richards clinch the 2018 Enduro Cup.

It was the second time Lowndes has held the Cup aloft, the first win coming alongside former co-driver Warren Luff in 2013.

As far as a single season goes, outside of the overall Championship win, it doesn’t get much bigger than these two achievements.

“It’s probably like a movie script, to be honest (to win Bathurst), I think that you couldn't script it any better,” he said.

“In my last full-time drive at Bathurst, to get into the top 10 shootout was really one of our major aims because going back next year as a co-driver I won't be qualifying the car - that's the main driver's role - so for me to have the opportunity was really special.

“Then to have that eight-second lead at the end of the race, to be able to really enjoy that last lap, which I really haven't had a chance to do in all the other wins that I’ve had because I've always had someone behind me biting at my heels trying to pass me. So to have that, to be able to hear and see the crowd on that last lap, it was really special.”

Bathurst’s famed Mount Panorama circuit has held a special place in Lowndes’ heart throughout his career, beginning with a gutsy move to overtake stalwart John Bowe for the lead late in the race, before eventually finishing second in his debut at the track in 1994.

Two years later Lowndes claimed the chequered flag at Bathurst, followed by triumphs in 2006, 2007, 2008, 2010, 2015 and 2018. He sits tied with Jim Richards, father of his co-driver Steven, on seven wins at the Mount Panorama track, with only Lowndes’ mentor and the undoubted “King of the Mountain”, Peter Brock, left in front with nine victories.

“You grow up watching (Bathurst), sitting at home on the couch as a boy hoping one day you get an opportunity to drive and race there, and yeah ’94 was definitely my career turning point,” he said.

“It was a bit of a fairy-tale sort of start, and I’ll always enjoy going back, regardless if I'm a driver or not, it definitely holds a special place in my heart for me.”

While his Bathurst victories are among his most treasured achievements, there’s certainly no shortage to choose from as the most successful driver in Australian motorsport history.

Lowndes was the first Australian driver to reach 100 Championship wins at the sport’s most elite level (achieved in 2015) and holds the record for the most race wins in the history of the Touring Car and V8 Supercar competitions.

He is a three-time Australian Champion (1996, 1998, 1999) and the recipient of a record five Barry Sheene Medals, the sport’s best and fairest award.

Off the track, he was awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia in 2012 for services to his sport and the community, including his charitable work with the RSPCA, Violence Against Women and his continual work on road safety.

Despite having driven for both Holden and Ford during his career, the controversial move hasn’t dampened his overwhelming popularity amongst parochial race car fans, who will no doubt be out in force to farewell him during his final race of the season in Newcastle.

“When you have lean years and don't have performances the fans are always the ones that keep you going, and I've always said the fans are the backbone of motor racing and it's true,” Lowndes said.

“They come to races, especially yesterday (at the Gold Coast 600) when the storm came through we’re sitting in the cars wanting to race and they’re still there with the umbrellas, wet and soaking and still supporting.

“I remember years ago when we were swapping from Holden to Ford I went and spoke to Brock, and he said that you're never really going to lose anything because you lose 50 per cent of the Holden fans because they’re not going to like you defecting, but then you’re going to gain 50 per cent of Ford fans because they’re going to love you coming across. So, in the end, you're not going to lose anything. I think for me that sort of stood true, I've got great Ford and Holden fans all around the place. For me, it's been fantastic to have that element.”

While the Newcastle 500 represents Lowndes’ last race as a full-time driver, there’s still plenty of fuel left in his tank.

With plans to be back in the co-driver’s seat again next year for a number of the endurance races, as well as taking up some opportunities in other styles of cars, Lowndes has assured his fans the chequered flag isn’t about to fall on his career on the track.

“I still get a buzz from driving, and I don't think that will ever change,” he said.

“I’ve been lucky enough to be in the sport for over two decades, and when I first started I probably halved the average age of a driver, now I’m doubling it so I've gone full circle and I'm still enjoying it.

“But while I'm still enjoying it the time is right to step down out of the full-time of Supercars, and go and explore other things if we can and drive other race cars.

“No doubt I won't be disappearing too much, that’s for sure.”

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