Rain shakes up Motocross, Supercross kickoffs

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When rain began to fall on the Hangtown Classic to kick off the 2019 Lucas Oil Pro Motocross Championship season, there was a strong sense of déjà vu.

Rain soaked January’s Monster Energy Supercross season opener in Anaheim as well, and provided a lineup that at the time seemed to have some surprise contenders.

Justin Barcia won that race, denying second-place Ken Roczen an opportunity to snap his long winless streak.

Barcia earned only one more top-5 during the season. Roczen would earn three more runner-up finishes, but was forced to a winless season.

A privateer at the time, Dean Wilson finished fourth at Anaheim I, but scored only three more top-5s before getting sidelined to injury following the Denver race.

No one expected what they would eventually see from fifth-place finisher Cooper Webb, who went on to dominate the Supercross season on his way to the championship. Surprise finish aside, three of the top-5 in that race finished the season within the top-5 in points.

While Roczen finishing up front at Hangtown is not entirely surprising – he did, after all, begin the Supercross season with nine consecutive top-fives – he had come close to winning without success on so many occasions since returning from a pair of injuries, that many questioned when he would actually break back into Victory Lane.

After Roczen announced he was dealing with an unknown health issue that drained his energy and caused him to finish outside the top five in six of the last eight Supercross rounds, a heavy track is not where most expected him to excel.

One of the biggest shake ups last week may have come in what didn’t happen instead of what did. Eli Tomac was a heavy favorite entering the race, having won the last two Hangtown Classics on his way to dominating the 2017 and 2018 Motocross seasons. A bad start mired Tomac deep in the pack, but with 30 minutes on the clock, he should have been able to ride back to the front. Instead, he finished fourth and barely grabbed that position from Zach Osborne with time off the clock.

Tomac needed the mud to give him the advantage. Moto 1 began on a dry track that was only starting to get heavy. The track was sloppy for Moto 2 with ruts that could swamp a bike, and that was when Tomac’s conditioning took over.

The rain shook up the lineup throughout the field. While the top five from Moto 1 all finished sixth or better in Moto 2, Roczen was the only rider who stood on the podium twice.

What remains to be seen is just how prophetic the remainder of the top-5 will be. Jason Anderson’s third overall marked his return to racing after getting sidelined before Supercross Round 3 in Oakland.

Fourth-place Osborne missed the first six rounds of Supercross and did not score a top-5 finish until Nashville with three races remaining. He ended the year with three top-5s in the last four rounds.

Meanwhile, who was lurking in fifth in the Hangtown Classic? Webb – in exactly the same spot he started the Supercross season.

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Jack Miller wins the MotoGP Japanese Grand Prix as Fabio Quartararo stops his downward points’ slide

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Jack Miller ran away with the MotoGP Japanese Grand Prix at Motegi as Fabio Quartararo stopped his downward slide in the championship when a last-lap accident from his closest rival in the standings caused Francesco Bagnaia to score zero points.

Starting seventh, Miller quickly made his way forward. He was second at the end of two laps. One lap later, he grabbed the lead from Jorge Martin. Once in the lead, Miller posted three consecutive fastest laps and was never seriously challenged. It was Australian native Miller’s first race win of the season and his sixth podium finish.

The proximity to his home turf was not lost.

“I can ride a motorcycle sometimes,” Miller said in NBC Sports’ post-race coverage. “I felt amazing all weekend since I rolled out on the first practice. It feels so awesome to be racing on this side of the world.

“What an amazing day. It’s awesome; we have the home Grand Prix coming up shortly. Wedding coming up in a couple of weeks. I’m over the moon; can’t thank everyone enough.”

Miller beat Brad Binder to the line by 3.4 seconds with third-place Jorge Martin finishing about one second behind.

But the center of the storm was located just inside the top 10 as both Quartararo and Bagnaia started deep in the field.

Quartararo was on the outside of row three in ninth with Bagnaia one row behind in 12th. Neither rider moved up significantly, but the championship continued to be of primary importance as Bagnaia put in a patented late-race charge to settle onto Quartararo’s back tire, which would have allowed the championship leader to gain only a single point.

On the final lap, Bagnaia charged just a little too hard and crashed under heavy braking, throwing away the seven points he would have earned for a ninth-place finish.

The day was even more dramatic for the rider who entered the MotoGP Japanese Grand Prix third in the standings. On the sighting lap, Aleix Espargaro had an alarm sound, so he peeled off into the pits, dropped his primary bike and jumped aboard the backup. Starting from pit lane, he trailed the field and was never able to climb into the points. An undisclosed electronic problem was the culprit.

For Quartararo, gaining eight points on the competition was more than a moral victory. This was a track on which he expected to run moderately, and he did, but the problems for his rivals gives him renewed focus with four rounds remaining.

Next week, the series heads to Thailand and then Miller’s home track of Phillip Island in Australia. They will close out the Pacific Rim portion of the schedule before heading to Spain for the finale in early November.

It would appear team orders are not in play among the Ducati riders. Last week’s winner Enea Bastianini made an aggressive early move on Bagnaia for position before the championship contender wrestled the spot back.

In his second race back following arm surgery, Marc Marquez won the pole. His last pole was more than 1,000 days ago on this same track in 2019, the last time the series competed at Motegi. Marquez slipped to fifth in the middle stages of the race, before regaining a position to finish just off the podium.

In Moto2 competition, Ai Ogura beat Augusto Fernandez to close the gap in that championship to two points. Fernandez holds the scant lead. Alonso Lopez rounded out the podium.

Both American riders, Cameron Beaubier and Joe Roberts finished just outside the top 10 in 11th and 12th respectively.