CAUTIOUS to the end, Jamie Whincup resisted celebrating his fourth V8 Supercars championship despite dramatically clinching the title at Winton, near Benalla, on Sunday in a race that almost went terribly wrong.
On target to claim the crown with a clean sweep of the weekend's two races, Whincup incurred a penalty as a result of a pit-stop error that turned what should have been a victory parade into a desperate recovery drive.
He transformed the setback, which threatened to keep the championship mathematically alive until the season-ending Sydney 500 in 12 days, into a defining performance that saw him race back from 22nd position to finish third in his Triple Eight Holden Commodore.
His veteran teammate Craig Lowndes stormed home ahead of Mark Winterbottom, whose championship lifeline was severed by Whincup's extraordinary fightback.
By joining them on the podium, the defending V8 champion extended his points lead over Winterbottom to 317 points, which is an unbeatable advantage with just two races and a maximum 300 available at Sydney Olympic Park on December 1-2.
His fourth title in five years elevates him to among the all-time greats of Australian touring car racing, joining Allan Moffat, Bob Jane and Jim Richards, and puts him just one championship behind the five achieved by Ian Geoghegan, Dick Johnson and Mark Skaife.
Despite putting the title beyond reach, Whincup remained circumspect and subdued, unwilling to claim the championship until after the twin 250-kilometre races that conclude the series on the treacherous Homebush street circuit.
"We're going to go to Sydney, try to enjoy ourselves, put our best foot forward," he said. "Mathematically, we've won the championship, but we won't celebrate until it's all over. We'll bottle it up until then.
"We [the Triple Eight team] are really good at bottling our emotions because it's been such a roller-coaster ride during the year."
Whincup's reluctance to embrace the moment comes from his deep-seated concern that, just as it almost went awry on Sunday, his insurmountable lead could still be eradicated by a points penalty in the unlikely event he or his team commit a serious technical or racing offence at the final event.
Although it is a far-fetched fear, after his comeback drive in Sunday's 67-lap, 201-kilometre race, Whincup preferred to reflect on his team's recovery from a mid-season slump and particularly his dominant form since his Bathurst victory last month.
"I've been having a lot of fun in the past few months and I don't really want it to finish," he said. "We're going to look back on 2012 as a special year. We dug deep and turned the tide. The hardest thing in any sport is to turn the tide.''
Pressed on his feelings about what a fourth V8 title would mean to him, Whincup cited this year being the last for the long-running Holden/Ford duopoly, with Nissan and Mercedes-Benz joining next year under the new Car Of The Future rules, and the record 30 race wins he has scored in his Commodore.
"This is a special one because it's the end of an era with these cars," he said. "And to win another [second] championship in the car that's won more races than any other, it's going to be extremely special."
While Whincup, 29, was battling his way back from the brink, Lowndes forged his way to the front to score a statistically significant win.
It was the fan favourite's 88th win in his 16-year Australian touring car/V8 Supercars career, just two short of the all-time record held by Skaife.