Coming off his three most disappointing rides of the season and wrestling with a debilitating illness sapping his normally redoubtable spirit, Ken Roczen started Sunday with a surprising text.
“My dad messaged me in the morning and wished me good luck and everything, and I told him ‘I’m winning today,’ ” Roczen said after his Round 15 victory, the first Supercross event he’d won in 14 weeks. “I kind of just put it in my head.”
In doing so, the Honda rider put himself in long-shot range of the 450 championship again – at least enough to give him a chance at beating the odds as he already has done often in his career.
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He still will need an even bigger rally than his surprising comeback from a shingles diagnosis to catch Eli Tomac, who has a 24-point lead and can clinch his first championship with a victory Wednesday in Round 16.
“I think I’m in a good spot right now,” Tomac said. “I can control my own destiny. So yeah, I’m happy right now. That’s all I have to say. I’m in a good spot, I think.”
The Kawasaki rider was reticent to discuss his championship chances or his place in history –with two victories in Utah and seven this season, Tomac has moved into a tie with four-time champion Ryan Dungey for fifth on the career 450 wins list with 34.
He did concede that he’d like to wrap the championship early as he did in the Lucas Oil Pro Motocross Championship last year. “It would be nice,” Tomac said. “Would be really nice. If the start is there, and I’m in position, heck yeah, I’m going to go for it. But got to think long game at this point.”
The third championship contender might be the favorite Wednesday, considering Cooper Webb is unbeaten in the past two midweek races in Salt Lake City. He also has something to fight for with Roczen, whom he trails by a point.
Webb (two victories), Tomac (two) and Roczen have accounted for all five wins in Utah.
“I know it’s getting tight with me and Ken for second,” Webb said. “The championship is the goal, but second is a plus.”
The 2019 series champion hasn’t given up on his long-shot title defense, but it does feel as if this is the year of Tomac, who has five consecutive podiums in Utah (and six since March).
Unless the misfortune he’s managed to avoid (Tomac fortunately avoided a crash in his path Sunday) suddenly befalls him, it might take an aggressive maneuver by Roczen or Webb to knock him out.
“I’m not in those guys’ heads,” Tomac said. “I still have a really nice points lead, and (the three contenders) are going to be racing each other for a few more years. So there’s always a chance of retaliation and wrecking other people’s day.”
Roczen seems to be feeding off only positive energy anyway. After opening Utah with a third, he finished fifth in Round 12 and a season-worst 10th in Round 13 – four spots below his previous low this year – while feeling “super lethargic.
“I’ve never seen anything like it, but I just had no aggression and felt tired,” he said. “It was like I was out of body. It was crazy.”
His wife noticed that morning that he had a red mark on his tailbone that was blistering, and a doctor recommended a blood test after the June 7 race. It came back positive for shingles, and he immediately began treatment, which might have blunted some symptoms. Roczen hasn’t felt much pain, and the blemishes are fading.
Getting proactive with injuries and illness, unfortunately, has been a way of life for Roczen, who also battled the Epstein-Barr virus and its accompanying fatigue and immune deficiencies last year.
In 2017, he suffered a wicked crash in Anaheim, California, that nearly resulted in the amputation of his left arm. After recovering, his 2018 season was derailed by a broken right hand in a wreck with Webb.
Like many professional sports athletes, Supercross riders typically are wary to disclose injuries, but Roczen is remarkably candid about his issues. He revealed the shingles diagnosis in an Instagram post last Friday.
“I’ve struggled with this before and managed it just fine, and I think I just got to a point right now where it’s backed off enough or suppressed enough to where I can handle it,” he said. “It is what it is. If you’re out there doing good and winning races and getting on the podium and all of a sudden you get lapped twice and 10th and fading after 8 minutes, it’s obvious. It is what it is. I’m hoping to get that definitely in check. I’m trying.
“We’re going to get there. … Always struggling with some kind of issue going on, it’s super annoying. Trust me. I’m sick of hearing it. I’m sure everybody else is. But again, I can only control so many things. I’m trying my best. There’s some people that had Epstein-Barr before and it’s ruined their entire career. We’re trying and doing our best to keep everything dormant.”