It would have been easy for Eli Tomac to panic after finishing 13th in the 2021 Supercross season opener, especially when he saw the first- and second-place riders fall early in Round 2, but patience and finesse carried the day and landed him on the top run of the podium.
Now the question shifts to whether it will carry the year.
Championships are contested over long seasons. In an evenly matched series with top-notch riders like Monster Energy Supercross, they are incredibly difficult to win once. Over the past several seasons, repeating has been impossible.
The past three Supercross titles have each been won by a first-time champion with Jason Anderson taking the honor in 2018, Cooper Webb in 2019 and Tomac last year.
Before then, the previous eight seasons had been claimed by only two riders. Ryan Dungey won the title in 2010 and then again from 2015 through 2017 in three consecutive seasons. Ryan Villopoto had four consecutive titles from 2011 through 2014 wedged in between Dungey’s successes.
If Tomac is able to back up his 2020 title with another in 2021, it would be a badge of honor and elevate him to the status of Dungey and Villopoto.
On Tuesday night, Tomac scored his 35th career Supercross win – notable in that it broke him out of a tie with Dungey for sixth on the all time winner’s list. The next rider in sight is Villopoto with 41.
Suffice it to say: Back-to-back championships are already on Tomac’s mind.
But his bid for that got off to a slow start at Houston – literally.
Being mired mid-pack at the close of Lap 1 of Round 1 was not unfamiliar ground for Tomac. He has struggled leaving the gate for the past couple of seasons, but is able to overcome that deficiency before the race is over. Proof? In the past two seasons, Tomac has finished outside the top five only once in 27 races. Notably, that came in the season opener last year when he finished seventh in Anaheim.
There is a huge difference between seventh and 13th in a 22-rider field, however.
“I was stressing out, to be honest,” Tomac said after winning Round 2 in Houston. “Sixteen points is horrible after Round 1. That’s a terrible hole to be in.
“I was pulling my hair out all day, even in practice. I was still a little bit behind. I practiced better at Round 1, but then obviously we had different results in the races.”
In Round 1, Tomac fell twice during the race and never found his rhythm. Tomac did not get the hole shot in Round 2, but he had a much stronger start and was third at the end of Lap 1.
“Saturday was pretty scary for the points chase there, so tonight there was no choice but to rebound to stay in this fight,” Tomac said. “The start there was huge for us. I moved outside for the main and it paid off. I was able to sweep around the outside.
“The two guys in front of me, Chase (Sexton) and Adam (Cianciarulo) were laying down the laps – burner pace. I knew it would be a long race.”
This season, the Supercross schedule is made up of mini-pods. These two- or three-race groupings cut down on travel for the riders and teams, which makes it easier to create and enforce protocols to battle the ongoing novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. In order to maintain the variety of the season that normally come naturally with the change of venues, Feld Enterntainment’s Dirt Wurx team tears down and rebuilds the track between rounds to create unique layouts.
Round 2 featured a tricky sand section that encompassed a corner and acceleration lane for the next straight. Cianciarulo crashed out of second-place when his nose got buried in the soft segment that required a lot finesse. Two laps later, the leader Sexton went down exiting that same section.
“All I know is the opening laps were crazy fast,” Tomac said. “Chase was going really fast; Adam was going really fast. I’m just like, this is going to be insane for 29 laps. They both made mistakes. That pace was pretty wild early on.
“Then in the middle it was kind of like trying to manage (second-place) Zach (Osborne). He was creeping a couple tenths a lap on me and I couldn’t really figure out where I was losing the time. Then I got to four or five minutes (to go). … I’m like, all right, I have to go now, and I pushed a little bit harder.
“That’s what really got me through to the end.”
One reason defending a championship has become so difficult is that the competition has stiffened in the past few years. Of course, perspective can be difficult to manage because one rides against the rivals at hand. When they are win, it is easy to elevate their stature.
But the proof of how tight the competition is can be found on the clock.
“Everyone is getting a little bit faster and everyone’s getting a little bit closer to each other,” Tomac said. “If you just look at the times in practice, how close tenth is, everyone is on the same second. If you look down the list, it’s like 12 guys who are in the same second.
“In the past there were maybe two or three guys that really were at the next level. So as we saw tonight, a whole different podium. So that could easily be the case this season.”
And it was not just Tuesday night. Through two rounds of Supercross action, the podiums have revealed some interesting faces. Justin Barcia won Round 1 over Ken Roczen and Marvin Musquin. Neither Roczen nor Musquin could be classified as a dark horse, but both of them missed one of the two major motorcycle seasons last year. Roczen skipped outdoors in the summer; Musquin spent the entire 2020 Supercross season healing from a knee injury.
Following Tomac across line in Round 2 were rookie Dylan Ferrandis and Justin Brayton. It was Ferrandis’ first podium in the 450 class and Brayton’s first in three years.
The only rider to earn top-fives in both opening rounds is Roczen who was penalized four points in Round 2 for jumping in an area that displayed a red cross flag.
The result of this parity is a very tight grouping among the top points contenders after two rounds. Before his penalty, Roczen had a one-point advantage over the field. After the penalty, the difference between first and second is still a single point, but Barcia stands ahead of Ferrandis. Fifth-place Roczen is three points behind.
And Tomac? His 13th-place finish in the opener hurt, but not nearly as much as it might have. He is sixth in the standings, but only four points out of first heading into Round 3, which will be the final race of the Houston pod that will be contested this Saturday, Jan. 23.