AFTER narrowly missing out on pole position for today's Bathurst 1000, V8 Supercars champion Jamie Whincup expressed disappointment even though the No. 1 starting position is of little consequence for such a long and unpredictable race.
Anything can happen and often does during more than six hours of hard racing around the demanding Mount Panorama circuit that requires just as much strategy as speed.
So while Whincup's regret at conceding the pole to title rival Will Davison, by just three one-hundredths of a second, was perhaps understandable on one level - his desire to be quickest every time he is on the track - it was slightly puzzling in the bigger picture of crafting a win from the inevitable ebbs and flows of the 1000-kilometre grind.
A clearer insight into his thinking was his admission after yesterday's top 10 shootout that winning the Bathurst 1000 was starting to become more important than adding to his V8 championship tally of three titles in the past four years.
Whincup is at the top of the points standings heading into the final five events of the series, fighting off strong challenges from Ford Performance Racing's Davison and Mark Winterbottom, and his own Triple Eight Holden teammate Craig Lowndes, but he conceded that he was facing a growing dilemma over whether he'd rather win another V8 crown or claim a fourth Bathurst title.
"That's a tough one," he said. ''I always say the championship because I still feel that it's the greatest prize in Australian motor sport.
"But I've won a few of those now, whereas I haven't won here since 2008 and it's starting to tear away at me."
Whincup admitted that coming so close to adding the prestige of a Bathurst 1000 pole position to his record of achievement in V8 racing, only to miss out because of a small miscue in the final corner of his one-lap race against the clock, was annoying after he'd set the pace in practice and qualifying.
"I would've liked to get pole because we've been quickest all through, so it's disappointing," he said.
Not that he has much reason to fret about his prospects in the race because his Commodore has plenty of pace, he is backed by the strongest team in pit lane, his co-driver Paul Dumbrell is experienced and fast, and starting from the front row of the grid still means he is likely to avoid any carnage in the fraught opening laps.
While Davison was thrilled to pip his close off-track friend for pole position - his first at Bathurst - he also accepted that it wasn't important or even significant to the ultimate outcome in the race.
"It doesn't mean anything, but it was a pleasant surprise," he said. "I'd prepared myself for Jamie just beating me. But as far as the race goes, all sorts of things could happen. We all have our basic race plans, but I can't remember the last time we had a basic Bathurst 1000.
"The key is to think on your feet and be a step ahead of what's happening on the track. This is nearly a 1000-kilometre sprint race now."
While Whincup and Lowndes remain the favourites ahead of Davison and Winterbottom, in reality any of the leading six (plus Lowndes) can claim to be serious contenders.
TOP BATHURST PAIRINGS
Will Davison/John McIntyre
Ford Performance Racing, Falcon
Starting from pole position gets you plenty of attention, but it doesn't mean anything once the green light goes out. Fortunately for Davison and McIntyre the pair have been looking strong through the week of practice and qualifying. With the 2009 race win to his credit, Davison knows what it takes to stand on the top step of the podium. Kiwi McIntyre may not have much profile in Australia but he is one of New Zealand's leading touring car drivers and has five Bathurst starts to his credit.
Jamie Whincup/Paul Dumbrell
Triple Eight Racing, Commodore
Already a three-time Bathurst winner to go with his three championships. But those wins were alongside teammate Lowndes and he'll be eager to grab a Mount Panorama win as the lead driver. All the ingredients are in place — Whincup is in good form, co-driver Dumbrell is a Bathurst specialist and the team is the benchmark in the category. The only question mark is the impact his fight for the championship will have; will he play it safe or go for glory?
Shane van Gisbergen/Luke Youlden
Stone Brothers Racing, Falcon
Van Gisbergen is only 23 but he's already got five Bathurst starts under his belt. He has the talent and the speed to win (especially if it rains), but the Stone Brothers team doesn't have a great record at this race. Despite drivers of the calibre of Marcos Ambrose and Russell Ingall the team has never repeated its 1998 triumph. Van Gisbergen and Youlden, an endurance race specialist, are the most likely duo to end that streak.
Mark Winterbottom/Steven Richards
Ford Performance Racing, Falcon
Ford's leading contenders are the team most likely to knock-off Triple Eight's duo. Winterbottom is fighting for the championship but has vowed not to hold anything back in his bid for Bathurst immortality. He has been in career-best form and Richards is one of the most experienced co-drivers in the field, with two wins at this race already. But Ford Performance Racing has never won this race and will need to avoid the strategy and technical problems that have plagued its previous attempts.
Fabian Coulthard/David Besnard
Brad Jones Racing, Commodore
Coulthard is more famous for his spectacular roll in the 2010 race but he's looking more likely to create happy memories. He and teammate Besnard have looked quick throughout the practice and qualifying. Team boss Brad Jones has a reputation for pulling out big results at Bathurst, without ever winning, so he'll he hoping to guide the pair to their first win; or at least another podium.
COMPILED BY STEPHEN OTTLEY