Every year starts with the same talk of riders “stepping up” and “going to the next level.” As it is, though, few riders really do engineer big year-over-year improvements—maybe they can for a few races, perhaps early in the season when everyone is still sorting out their bikes, or late in the year if the field has been ravaged by injuries. But steady, repeatable, gains throughout the season? Rare as a zebra changing its stripes—hence the saying.
Okay, it does happen here and there. Certainly Davi Millsaps great season a year ago qualifies. You probably won’t get any arguments that JGR Toyota Yamaha’s Justin Brayton is this season’s most improved rider, and while he’s not doing Millsaps-in-2013 damage, he’s sill averaging much better finishes, speed and consistency this year. A year ago at this point in the season, Brayton had 103 points and sat ninth in the standings. This year he’s scored 143, and sits fifth.
Brayton’s had a plan to do this all season long, repeating the mantra “Racing the guys I should be racing with” and focusing on mixing into the Villopoto/Dungey/Stewart/Roczen/Reed pack each week. For the most part, he’s done that. Following a shocking second-place finish at round two in Phoenix, where he nearly made a last-lap pass on Villopoto to steal the lead, Brayton has refused to fall back through the field. After a sub-par (based on his new standards) sixth at Anaheim 3, it looked like Brayton could be falling out of that top five pack, but he traced that finish back to some new chassis settings that didn’t work. He went back to his old stuff for San Diego and rode much better, although a first-lap crash left him in last. Still, he salvaged ninth. In Dallas and Atlanta, he bounced back into the top five.
Now came some adversity in Indy, as Brayton came into the race fighting food poisoning—he traces it all back to apparently some bad salmon he had leading up to the race. He was really sick all day. He tried to eat but couldn’t, tried to at least drink a smoothie but couldn’t, and felt horrible and low on energy. It was all he could do to avoid throwing up in his helmet. Also facing a demanding track, it was not shaping up as a great night. But, he’s also determined not to let the results start sagging. So on the treacherous course, he dug deep and rode as hard as he could for as long as he could. He was pretty much done in the latter laps, but had enough left to salvage an eighth place finish.
It wasn’t top five, it wasn’t a podium, and not the career-first win he’s hoping to get. But it was a solid finish on a bad night, which makes him this week’s Unsung Hero.