By Clint Quesinberry and Shawn Smith
RedBud marked the official midway point of the 2012 motocross season, which means there's no better time to stop and reminisce about the first six rounds. Today we look back at the major storylines in the 450 class so far. Check back Thursday for the report on the 250 class.
Leaders of the Pack
When the year began, the big story was that James Stewart was throwing his hat into the ring for the Lucas Oil Pro Motocross series for the first time since 2008. That was the year Stewart went undefeated, winning every single moto outdoors. Since then he has not contested for the championship, but decided during the supercross season to part ways with the Joe Gibbs Racing team that shelled out quite a lot of money for him and take a ride for the factory Suzuki team. He lost a lot of money on the deal and even agreed to ride with Suzuki for free until next year.
When the gate dropped at Hangtown, Stewart's old speed came out, and he showed everyone that he still had what it takes to win outdoors. Although JS7 won the first four motos of the series, Ryan Dungey was knocking on his door to make it known that he was a force to be reckoned with as well.
The entire series turned on this one moment...
The third round at Thunder Valley brought about a twist in the series. A cameraman crossed the track in front of Stewart in the opening moto, and he went down hard (video above.) Stewart would get up on his own, but would not finish the race or return for the second moto of the day. Dungey ran away with the win and set the tone for the rest of the series up through the midway mark. Stewart tried to make a return at High Point, but his wrist was not strong enough for him to compete at the level he wanted to. After finishing 5th in the first moto, he didn't have the strength to race the second moto.
Playing it Safe
Even though Ryan Dungey has been running away with every single moto win since Thunder Valley in dominating fashion, the battle for the podium behind him has been very heated. Mike Alessi has been pulling his signature holeshots and, at times, even challenging Dungey. But the song is always the same. As the motos wear on, Dungey makes his way past Alessi and puts on a riding clinic for the rest of the field.
Mike Alessi has been the most consistent of the "best of the rest" (Photo: Carl Stone)
In interviews, many people have asked Alessi what his strategy is this year, and his response: play it safe. This past year’s supercross season took many riders out of the lineup with injuries, and he learned from others that sometimes it’s better to play it safe and come back to race the next weekend, rather than make a mistake pushing beyond what he's capable over. This can be clearly seen in his riding week after week, as he seems comfortable in 2nd or 3rd place trying to avoid getting hurt riding over his head to get by Dungey, instead knowing that if Dungey goes down, he'll be in position to capitalize on it and maybe get the championship that he's wanted all along.
Podiums up for Grabs
Behind Alessi, other riders have surely stepped up this year. Jake Weimer's racked up several top-5 finishes, and it seems he's finally found a place near the front that he can be happy with. Coming out of the lites class looking to make a name for himself in the 450 class, Jake just couldn’t put the finishes together to do so. This year he's been running up front consistently, and it could be giving him the confidence he needs in order to pull off a moto win in the future.
Jake Weimer is one of two Kawasaki riders sitting in the top 5 in points (Photo: Carl Stone)
Another Kawasaki rider that's found his groove is Broc Tickle. Tickle was forced into the 450 class unexpectedly before supercross and has been adapting ever since. Mitch Payton put together a 450 bike and got Broc racing in the premier division in supercross, but Broc had yet to show great speed by the season's end. Despite a few rumors to the contrary, Team Green kept Broc on the 450 for the start of the motocross season.
The outdoor season started off a little slow for him again, but as the series progressed, so did Tickle. Each round has seen him gain a little more confidence, and his results are there to prove it. He even scored a pair of 2nd-place finishes at Budds Creek to take home the second-place overall trophy. His improvements haven’t gone unnoticed - he's one to bet on in the upcoming half of the season for some podiums, and you know he's thirsty for his first win as well.
Could last weekend's round at RedBud provide some insight into some guys to watch out for in the second half? Several riders turned in strong performances up in Michigan and hope to continue building that momentum over the next six rounds.
Christian Craig was killing it with the starts last weekend, jumping out to 3rd at the beginning of the 1st moto, then rounding the opening corner in 2nd in the final moto. Unfortunately for Craig, the rust was evident as the grueling 30-minute motos went on. He faded back through the pack in both motos, posting 16-13 finishes, good for 13th overall. If he can keep putting himself up front on starts, the results should come for Craig, maybe sooner than later.
Christian Craig is back... and he's fast. (Photo: Simon Cudby)
Tyla Rattray also made his return last week, and while he didn't get off to blazing starts like Christian Craig, he was super-consistent, finishing in the top 5 in both races. Tyla's a bit of an unknown commodity on the 450 bike, but he was excellent last year on a 250, and many people believe he's even better-suited for the 450. Top 5 finishes look like they could be the norm for the Factory Kawasaki rider.
Justin Brayton finished 4th in points in supercross earlier this year, but surprised a lot of people by struggling at the first few rounds of the Lucas Oil Pro Motocross series. Brayton seems officially back on track though. The first breakthrough came when he grabbed the holeshot in the opening moto at Budds Creek, en route to a 5th-place finish in the moto and 5th overall on the day. He followed that up with 3-4 finishes at RedBud, landing him on the podium in 2nd and beating out - among others - James Stewart.
Brayton broke through for his first podium of the year at RedBud (Photo: Carl Stone)
Another hot name right now is Cole Thompson. The rookie decided to leave the amateur ranks early and took a shot at riding a 450 on a privateer effort this year. He had yet to really make an impact until RedBud, but many people took notice of his 7-8 finishes there. It may not be fair to expect Cole to challenge for podiums at this point, but he'll have a chance to use the next six rounds as an audition for a 2013 ride.
With James Stewart gone, it seemed as if the 450 class was going to be a snoozefest, but Stewart decided he was going to return to action at RedBud after the series had a few weekends off. As the first moto got underway, it seemed as if we would have a battle on our hands like the ones we saw at the opening rounds. But after a few laps, Ryan Dungey made the statement that he's the fastest man in the 450 class right now, running away with two moto wins on the day, while Stewart placed 3rd overall with 6-3 scores. His first moto in particular was filled with mistakes (video below,) indicating he was rusty from being sidelined. It looks like JS7 will need to bring out his entire bag of tricks in order to catch Dungey, as moto wins won't be coming as easily as they did at Hangtown and Freestone.
It was a rough first moto for Stewart last weekend
The Injury Bug
James Stewart's not the only one dealing with the injury bug this year. The bug actually started biting before the outdoor season got underway, with Chad Reed and Ryan Villopoto suffering season-ending injuries at supercross races. Villopoto's injury in particular stings, as he had already locked up the supercross championship by the time he went down with a knee injury in Seattle. Even Dungey and Stewart missed races during the supercross season due to injury.
It's a shame that we have yet to see the "Big Four" all healthy and active at the same time during a motocross season to compete for a title, but the door has opened for other riders to crack the podium as a result.
Villopoto was unable to defend his title this year
With the title contenders basically whittled down to Dungey and Stewart by the time the gates dropped at Hangtown, there was even more in store. Ben Townley was all set to fill in for Chad Reed, until a dislocated hip in April ended his outdoor season before it could get underway. Meanwhile Ryan Villopto's replacement, Tyla Rattray, got called up to Kawasaki's 450 team, only to break his hand at the season opener and miss the next four rounds.
More recently, Brett Metcalfe - James Stewart's teammate on Yoshimura Suzuki - underwent surgery for a broken tibia and dislocated wrist and will miss the remainder of the season. Stewart's old JGR teammate, Davi Millsaps, was sidelined for RedBud with an ankle injury and is also questionable for the next round.
The Second Half Starts Now
Entering the second half of the season, Dungey is the man to beat in the 450 class. He's in a league of his own right now, and it seems that Stewart is the only one with the ability to beat him - but only when he's at 100% health. As for the rest of the field, many riders have the ability to get on the podium, and they are all working very hard to get there.
Who will be the one to end Dungey's winning streak? (Photo: Carl Stone)
Mike Alessi has got to be tired of not getting a moto win and will be gunning to beat Dungey, but only if it means riding at a somewhat-comfortable pace. Jake Weimer and Broc Tickle will be putting on charges of their own as they make themselves forces to contend with in the 450 class and prove that they deserve to be riding up front. Tyla Rattray is back in action, and you can look for him to get himself on the podium after being sidelined with in an injury for most of the season. He's riding Ryan Villopoto’s championship Kawasaki and needs to prove himself in order to get a ride for next year.
There will continue to be a lot of speculation on who will do well over the rest of the year, but one thing's for certain and has been proven over and over again: anything can happen.