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.

NHRA: Antron Brown on verge of earning 50th career Top Fuel win this weekend at Phoenix

Photo courtesy Toyota Racing
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When you’re used to winning championships – like three in the previous five seasons – any other season finish is disappointing.

That’s kind of how NHRA Top Fuel dragster driver Antron Brown looked at his fourth-place showing in the 2017 Mello Yello Drag Racing Series.

“At the end of the day, we had a very competitive season last year and made it to 10 final rounds,” Brown said. “But we got into the Countdown (NHRA’s six-race playoffs) and our timing was off.

“We struggled with a lot of problems we don’t usually have. Now it’s time for a new chapter for this team and time to get better. This is a new beginning for us and it’s going to be fun and exciting and we’re coming after them.”

Antron Brown hugs the NHRA Top Fuel championship trophy after winning it in 2016. (Photo by David Allio/Icon Sportswire)

Brown had a good start to 2018, reaching the semifinals before losing to Don Schumacher Racing teammate Tony Schumacher in the season-opening Lucas Oil Winternationals at Auto Club Raceway in Pomona, California.

“We had a great performance at Pomona and I couldn’t be more proud of what our Matco/Toyota guys did,” Brown said. “Now we are going to Phoenix where we’ve won three times (2009, 2012 and 2014, and was runner-up in 2011) and we’ll just try to hit it hard and get a fourth.”

Next up on the NHRA 24-race national event circuit is the second race of the season, this weekend’s NHRA Arizona Nationals at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park in suburban Phoenix (Chandler, Arizona).

Brown has definite plans to make it four wins in Phoenix. And if he does that Sunday, he’ll set a significant career milestone: it would be his 50th career win driving a Top Fueler and the 66th win overall (he won 16 races in Pro Stock Motorcycle before shifting from two to four wheels).

In so doing, Brown would become only the fourth Top Fuel driver in NHRA history to hit the 50-win mark. The others are Tony Schumacher (83), Larry Dixon (62) and Joe Amato (52).

This will be the second time Brown has been racing in Phoenix this month. He was part of the preseason test there for Top Fuel, Funny Car and Pro Stock cars a week before the season began.

“Testing went really well there,” said Brown, leaving him optimistic that he can reach victory circle once again. “I love going back to Phoenix.”

Brown has been the most dominant driver in NHRA Top Fuel competition since 2012, winning more than twice the number of races (34) than the next most successful Top Fuel driver (16 by Schumacher) in that time period.

He also has a 71 percent overall win percentage, which exceeds both eight-time Top Fuel champ Schumacher and 16-time Funny Car champ John Force.

“I’m just pumped up, feeling like we’ve got some unfinished business from last year,” Brown said. “We had a good outing but didn’t close the deal, so this year, we’re looking forward to getting back there and getting off to a great start.”

NOTES: Brown will serve as honorary pace car driver for the March 4th Pennzoil 400 NASCAR Cup race at Las Vegas. He’ll be joined by teammates Matt Hagan and Leah Pritchett in a weekend full of activities that they’ll all be involved in.

“I’m really excited,” Brown said. “It’s going to be my first experience as a pace car driver, and I’m just super stoked to go out there and drive the Camry pace car for Pennzoil and start those NASCAR boys off the right way. Throttle down, pedal to the metal. I just want them to get off to a great start.”

Brown has won four times at The Strip, the drag strip adjacent to Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

“I couldn’t be more excited to have the opportunity,” he said. “It’s an honor to be out there with such talented drivers, and I know I’m going to really enjoy watching our NASCAR counterparts.”

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