The inaugural Winter Heat Sprint Car Showdown at Cocopah (Ariz.) Speedway is in the books after victories from Danny Lasoski on Friday and Aaron Reutzel on Saturday.
Lasoski steadily moved toward the front in Friday’s feature and picked up second place just past halfway. Lapped traffic helped him get even closer to leader Dale Blaney, and on the final lap, a backmarker caused Blaney to slow in Turn 1.
That opened the door for Lasoski, who went three-wide on the bottom with the lapped car in the middle and Blaney on the outside. After splitting the lapped car, Lasoski and Blaney switched lanes as they exited Turn 4 with the former moving up high and the latter coming down low.
At the stripe, Lasoski’s high-line push made the difference as he beat Blaney in a narrow finish.
“That was luck,” Lasoski said afterwards in a track release. “[Blaney] just got hung up. Whenever I’d get within a car length of him, I’d get tight. I had to move around, move around.
“He was setting a good pace and he just got held up, but sometimes it’s better to be running second.”
Paul McMahan, who won the opener of the five-night Winter Heat series, finished third for yet another podium. That set him up with a 24-point championship lead going into Saturday’s grand finale.
Reutzel had been a threat to win in the first two Winter Heat events only to be undone both times by mechanical problems. But on Saturday, he finally converted a front row start into a victory.
After starting up front with NASCAR’s own Kasey Kahne, Reutzel led the first eight laps before being overtaken by Craig Dollansky. Reutzel would respond by taking the lead back on the next lap but the nose wing broke on his car shortly afterwards.
Reutzel’s car now had its handling compromised, but he was able to hold on to his lead through the lapped traffic. Dollansky would be passed by David Gravel for the runner-up spot on the last lap.
As far as Reutzel was concerned, if his nose wing had to go, he was glad it happened with the lead in hand.
“Craig drove around me through the middle,” he recalled. “I got the wing back a little farther and figured I was going to try to go back around him the same way. Luckily, I got right back by him. Then the nose wing fell down, so luckily, I got by him that lap because we definitely wouldn’t have passed him with that nose wing down.”
Kahne would ultimately finish fifth behind Reutzel, Gravel, Dollansky, and fourth-place Sam Hafertepe Jr.
Meanwhile, the championship took one last twist on Saturday. McMahan failed to make it out of the B-Main, finishing ninth – just one spot out of the transfer zone.
Lasoski took full advantage of McMahan’s absence in the A-Main, finishing sixth and taking the title over McMahan on a tie-breaker thanks to his win on Friday.
Change can be frightening, but it is often exhilarating and Ken Roczen, a rider in his ninth season on a 450 bike, it was urgently needed.
Roczen ended the 2022 Supercross season with his worst performance in five years. After finishing outside of the top five in seven of his last eight rounds in the stadium series, well down the points’ standings in ninth, he decided to put that season on hold.
Before 2022, Roczen was a regular challenger for the championship despite being plagued by major accidents that required surgery in 2017 and 2018. On his return, he was diagnosed with the Epstein-Barr virus, which presents with symptoms of heavy fatigue, muscle weakness and loss of appetite and last year he tested positive for COVID-19.
Against those odds, he finished second in the outdoor season in 2019 and third in 2020. In the Supercross series, he finished third in 2020 and second in 2021.
But the abbreviated season of 2022 signaled a need for change for Roczen.
“I needed the change urgently,” Roczen said in last week’s post-race press conference at Angel Stadium. “I did a pretty big change in general.”
Those comments came three races into the 2023 with him sitting among the top three finishers for the first time in 10 Supercross rounds. It was the 57th podium of his career, only six behind 10th-place Ryan Villopoto. It was also the first for Suzuki since 2019 when Chad Reed gave them one in Detroit 63 rounds ago.
Taking time off at the end of the Supercross season had the needed effect. He rejoined SuperMotocross in the outdoor season and immediately stood on the podium at Fox Raceway in Pala, California. Two rounds later, he won at Thunder Valley in Lakewood, Colorado. The relief was short lived and he would not stand on the podium again until this year.
“I just think change overall made it happen – and these overseas races – it’s really just a snowball,” Roczen said. “You start somewhere and you feel like something works out and I got better and had more fun doing it. Working with the team as well and working on the motorcycle to get better and actually see it paying off. It’s just, it’s just a big boost in general.”
The return to Suzuki at this stage of his career, after nearly a decade of competing on 450 motorcycles, recharged Roczen. He is one of three riders, (along with Cooper Webb and his former Honda teammate Chase Sexton), with a sweep of the top five in the first three rounds of the 2023 Supercross season.
But last week’s podium really drove home how strong he’s been.
“I think we’re all trying to take it all in,” Roczen said. “I wouldn’t say it came out of nowhere really, but before the season starts you think about – or I thought of how my whole last season went – and it’s been a long time since I’ve been on the podium.”
Roczen’s most recent podium prior to Anaheim 2 came at Budds Creek Motocross Park in Mechanicsville, Maryland last August in Round 10 of the outdoor season. His last podium in Supercross was the 2022 season opener that raised expectations so high.
The change Roczen needed was not just a different team and bike. More importantly, he needed the freedom to set his own schedule and control his training schedule.
“It’s long days, but I’m really into it at the moment,” Roczen said. “Overall, I felt [that] throughout this off season and now my health has been really well, really good, so that helps. It’s needed to get to the top. I’m pretty confident that we’re, we’re doing the right thing – that I’m doing the right thing.
“I’m doing all my training on my own and I’m planning out my entire week. And I feel like I have a really good system going right now with recovery and putting in some hard days. Right now, I don’t really have anybody telling me what to do. I’m the best judge of that.
“It’s really hard to talk about how much work we’ve put in, but we’ve been doing some big changes and riding a lot throughout the week, some really, really late days. And they’re paying off right now; we’re heading in the right direction. We’re all pulling on the same string, and that helps me out big time.”