Motocross: Can Roczen slow Dungey’s momentum Saturday at Unadilla?

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The final off-week of the Lucas Oil Pro Motocross Championship season could not have come at a better time for Ken Roczen.

Four weeks ago, Roczen had managed to build up a 26-point lead on his Red Bull KTM teammate Ryan Dungey in the 450 Class championship standings. In just two rounds since then, Dungey has managed to nearly cut that lead in half. The turning point seemed to occur two weeks ago at Washougal, where Dungey swept both motos and trimmed the gap down to 14 points.

The momentum is suddenly shifting away from Roczen, and he seems to know it. At the post-race press conference in Washougal, he acknowledged that he’s not racing at the same level we’ve seen that he’s capable of:

Obviously, right now I’m not riding like I did in the beginning of the year, so I’m just trying to get back there. There’s just some sacrifices that I have to make. I’m still kind of all over the place. I go play golf, I go jump in the pool, and this and that. I think I just got to take a bit more rest. I’m willing to do anything to be able to keep that red plate, so I’m going to go work on a few things and maybe come back swinging.

It’s clear from Roczen’s quote that he isn’t taking this challenge lightly. Whether or not he was able to use the off-week to make the necessary changes – both to his bike and to himself – to return to the top of the podium is the biggest question that will be answered Saturday at the Red Bull Unadilla National.

Here’s a few other storylines to keep an eye on when the gates drop.

Who’s out?
The 450 Class will be missing two of this season’s moto winners from the starting gate, as James Stewart (undisclosed) and Josh Grant (concussion) will both miss their second race in a row. Stewart and Grant are currently fifth and sixth, respectively, in 450MX points.

Who’s in?
GEICO Honda’s Zach Osborne will return to action in the 250 Class after recovering from a torn thumb ligament that he suffered in the second moto of the season. He was a top-five rider last year and was expected to contend for moto wins this season before being injured. Darryn Durham (250 Class, concussion) and Jake Weimer (450 Class, back) are also among this week’s notable returns.

A shot at redemption?
There’s another rider back in action this week – Michael Byrne. Byrne is making his season debut riding for Chad Reed’s TwoTwo Motorsports team. It was right here at Unadilla two years ago that Byrne’s career was altered. While he was leading the first 450 Class moto, he got caught in a rut and broke his leg. It was a devastating injury that he has struggled to recover from. Byrne is reportedly feeling healthier now though and will surely be motivated to turn in a good outing in the 450 Class.

New recruits
The pros may have had an off-week, but down in Tennessee, the top amateur racers in the country were at the Loretta Lynn’s Amateur Motocross Championships. Every year, a few of the top amateurs graduate to the pro ranks in time for the last few nationals of the season. This year, there are three riders to keep an eye on. RJ Hampshire (GEICO Honda) is the cream of the crop after sweeping all six motos he raced at Loretta Lynn’s and winning two championships, but Luke Renzland (CycleTrader.com/Rock River Yamaha) and Chris Alldredge (Monster Energy/Pro Circuit/Kawasaki) come with plenty of hype and accolades this year as well.

The other championship battle
In the 250 Class, Jeremy Martin holds a comfortable points lead over Cooper Webb and Blake Baggett. With another solid outing at Unadilla, Martin could position himself to wrap up the title early at next week’s Indiana National. On the flip side, one bad moto from Martin could completely alter the complexion of the title fight.

Coverage from Unadilla starts at 10:30 AM E.T. with the second practice session in the 450 and 250 Classes, followed by the pre-race show at 12:15 PM E.T. Both can be streamed online through ProMotocross.com and NBC Sports Live Extra.

First motos in both classes will stream live online beginning at 1:00 PM E.T., followed by second motos at 3:00 PM E.T. NBC and NBCSN will also have television coverage, with the final 450 Class moto airing live on NBC at 3:00 PM E.T., and the final 250 Class moto live on NBCSN at 4:00 PM E.T.

Schmidt Peterson aiming high with Hinchcliffe, Wickens

Photo: IndyCar
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The new Schmidt Peterson Motorsports duo of James Hinchcliffe and Robert Wickens expressed a high amount of confidence during Wednesday’s confirmation of Hinchcliffe’s return and Wickens’ signing, as the pair looks to return the Sam Schmidt and Ric Peterson co-owned team to prominent status within the Verizon IndyCar Series.

“We’re hoping to give Toronto and Ontario and Canadian sports fans in general something to cheer about over the next season,” Hinchcliffe quipped during a teleconference on Wednesday.

Granted, there are likely to be several challenges to overcome, notably for Wickens, who returns to single-seater competition for the first time since 2011, when he was a champion of the Formula Renault 3.5 series and served as test driver for the now defunct Manor Racing (then known as Marussia Virgin Racing).

Having spent every year since then in DTM, where he won a total of six races and finished as high as fourth in the championship (2016), Wickens knows returning to open wheel competition will be an adjustment. However, he explained that the history of Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, specifically its Indy Lights history, speaks to their ability to help a driver adapt, and he rates the program they’re putting together very highly.

“I think Schmidt Peterson Motorsports have a fantastic driver development program. They showed that in their multiple Indy Lights championships along the way. I think we will have a strong program in place. I have a feeling that the simulator will be my new best friend,” Wickens said when asked about getting reacquainted with an open-wheel car.

Of course, having an experienced teammate like Hinchcliffe to lean on will undoubtedly help the transition, something Wickens readily admitted.

“I’m very fortunate that I have James as my teammate because he’s so experienced, I can learn off him. Because we already have such a good off-track relationship, I feel like you can just take his word, trust him, kind of move forward with it,” he revealed.

They’ve been teammates before, both in karting where they first met in 2001, and then in the now-defunct A1 Grand Prix series in 2007-2008, a series that pitted nations against each other in spec open-wheel cars. Funnily, that A1GP type of vibe returns as Schmidt Peterson Motorsports now has that with its “Team Canada” mantra while all four of Andretti Autosport’s full-season drivers are American.

For Hinchcliffe, Wickens’ background, even if it hasn’t been in the single-seater realm since 2011, was a big selling point in adding him to the team.

“In Robby, we have a proven winner at a very high level. The level of technical expertise that he comes with from his time in DTM is very impressive,” he said of Wickens’ technical background.

Hinchcliffe added that Wickens’ ability to analyze the car and its setup was evidenced in two outings: one at Sebing International Raceway in March, in part of a “ride swap” between the two longtime friends, and a second at Road America, when he subbed on Friday practice for Mikhail Aleshin.

Wickens sampled Hinchcliffe’s No. 5 Arrow Electronics Honda earlier this year. Photo: IndyCar

Hinchcliffe revealed that Wickens’ feedback to the team and his ability to quickly adapt to the chassis took everyone somewhat by surprise.

“We did our ride swap. He had two hours in the car, hardly anything even resembling a test day, and his performance was pretty impressive. No doubt the time in Road America helped because that really gave us a better sense of his technical feedback, integrated with the team a little bit more. Everybody was happy to work with him on that day,” said Hinchcliffe.

Further still, Hinchcliffe is firm in his belief that the 2018 aero kit and its reduction in aerodynamic downforce will fall right into Wickens’ wheelhouse, based on Hinchcliffe’s own take after sampling Wickens’ DTM Mercedes earlier this year.

“In all honesty, I was saying earlier today, the 2018 car is probably better suited for him than the 2017 car because of the experience he’s had the last handful of series,” Hinchcliffe asserted.

“The (aero kit) was such high downforce, it would be a big change coming out of DTM. But with the loss of downforce that we’ve seen, the car is moving around a little bit more, brake zones, things like that, it won’t be as big a transition I think. Just based on the experience that I got in our ride swap, I think he’s going to adapt very quickly, be comfortable very quickly, and as a result be competitive very quickly. So it’s going to be exciting.”

As for expectations heading into next year, team co-owner Schmidt did not mince words and expects the team’s performance to resemble what they did in 2012, 2013, and 2014, when they won a total of four races (with driver Simon Pagenaud) and finished in the top five in the championship each year.

“We had a stint in ’12, ’13, ’14 where we finished fifth in the points (or better. I think we want to get back to that level of competition,” Schmidt added. “We felt like we were missing things in having two cars with equal funding and equal drivers and equal capabilities. We think this gets back there.”

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