Justin Brayton’s superb performance for second nearly overshadowed who was standing in the center of the box—Ryan Villopoto. In just one week, RV reversed whatever momentum or confidence he had given to his competition at the opener, starting from about tenth to come all the way through for the win. Along the way, the Monster Energy Kawasaki rider passed a ton of big hitters—Stewart, Barcia, Roczen and Dungey—before getting Brayton. It was an impressive ride.
But, Brayton stayed close right to the end, and that had the place buzzing. Why was Brayton so good? “It started in November,” he said. “Yamaha gave us an all-new motorcycle, and I started working with Nathan Ramsey. Just everyone around me pushes so hard. We put a plan together and it’s paying off. I feel like I’m battling with guys I’m supposed to be battling with.” Brayton seemed especially comfortable on the Phoenix track, handling a difficult triple-triple-triple rhythm section with ease and absolutely killing the whoops. In fact, that’s where he was able to draw close to Villopoto on the final lap. Brayton also just appears relaxed this season. He didn’t suffer from the typical opening-round jitters a week ago, and didn’t seem at all phased leading laps in Phoenix, or challenging late.
Why was Villopoto better? He said the team did a lot of work on the shock on his Kawasaki, and it made a difference. This is also Villopoto’s first win ever in Phoenix—and by the way, he’s got the points lead back.
Yamalube Star Racing rider Cooper Webb made some noise in Phoenix, getting good starts and mixing it up at the front--but he ended up on the ground and taking fellow rookie SX pro Shane McElrath with him.
The Phoenix track was technical, with big obstacles, big whoops, and the typical slippery, dry dirt. Anaheim 1 seemed more technical than previous openers, and Phoenix seemed a little more challenging than previous years. If the trend keeps up, the tracks will be gnarly by the end of the season.
Ryan Dungey was solid again, but he didn’t put up a big fight when Villopoto got inside of him in a bowl turn after the whoops. He stayed close to the Villopoto/Brayton battle up front, but got held up by Matt Goerke when they where lapping him and had to double through a triple jump in the rhythm lane. That lost ground prevented him from making a late challenge.
Last week’s winner, Ken Roczen, came into the race fighting back some sort of food poisoning, which left him throwing up on Thursday. He felt better on Friday and was okay on race day, although he said he was maybe not quite at 100 percent. He battled toward the front early until getting tagged by Justin Barcia and going down—Kenny said he’ll be out for revenge for that move.
Jake Weimer got a heat race win for Monster Energy Kawasaki, but a crash in the main left him 18th.
Barcia appeared to have the best chance to challenge Villopoto since he matched his lap times throughout the day in practice. Early in the main, he was around Dungey and challenging Brayton for the lead and it seemed like everything was going his way. Then, suddenly, he started making mistakes and losing ground before finishing fifth. Barcia did take on a crash in practice at one point so that might have left him hurting.
Injuries were still very much a story in Phoenix. Eli Tomac was a race-day decision with a sore shoulder from last week, he tried suiting up but couldn’t go. Eli says he needs some time to get back on the bike, he’s thinking round four in Oakland is the earliest possible return. Josh Grant crashed in a rhythm section and hurt his shoulder, he tried to go but after riding around for opening ceremonies realized it wasn’t going to happen. Also, Tomac’s young GEICO Honda 250SX teammate Zach Bell crashed and broke his collarbone.
Where was Chad Reed? Absolutely terrible start in the main. He finished ninth.
While Villopoto reestablished himself in the 450s, Dean Wilson was hoping to do the same in the 250 class. It was a disappointing night in the end, as Dean got off to a decent start and wanted to keep the leaders Cole Seely and Jason Anderson in sight. He made a few mistakes trying to find a way around Shane McElrath for third, and then the leaders were gone. Dean seemed to really fall off the pace toward the end of the race, and Zach Osborne got him for third. Not the start to the season Dean was hoping for.
Maybe the biggest bummer of the night? Josh Hill in the 450 class, who missed the main event on his Soaring Eagle Casino/RCH Suzuki. Hill had some bad starts in his qualifiers and also didn’t move through the pack as quickly as needed to make it into the 22-rider show.
Oh Cole Seely! The TLD rider has led nearly every lap of the 250SX mains this year but has fallen short each time. Will he end up champion when it's all over anyway, though?