Eli Tomac erases ‘scary’ deficit in bid to repeat as Supercross champion

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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.”

Eli Tomac lost the red backing on his No. 1 plate after finishing 13th in Round 1. Feld Entertainment, Inc.

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.

Final 2023 Rolex 24 at Daytona results, stats

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — The 2023 Rolex 24 at Daytona overall results were all streaks: two consecutive victories in the endurance classic for Meyer Shank Racing and three in a row for Acura.

And Helio Castroneves became the second driver to win three consecutive Rolex 24s and the first to win in three straight years (Peter Gregg won in 1973, ’75 and ’76; the race wasn’t held in ’74 because of a global oil crisis).

Starting from the pole position, Tom Blomqvist took the checkered flag in the No. 60 ARX-06 that led a race-high 365 of 783 laps with co-drivers Castroneves, Simon Pagenaud and Colin Braun.

RESULTS: Click here for the finishing order in the 61st Rolex 24 at Daytona l By class

Meyer Shank Racing now has two Rolex 24 victories and the 2022 championship since entering the premier prototype category of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship in 2021.

“I think what’s so special about this team is we are a small team compared to some of our opponents, but the atmosphere, the way we work, enables people to get the best out of themselves, and I think that’s why we’re such high achievers,” Blomqvist said. “I think there’s no egos. It’s a very open book, and that just enables each and every one of us to reach our potential. I think that’s why we’ve achieved so much success in really a short time at this level of competition.”

It’s the 16th IMSA victory for MSR.

The 61st running of the Rolex 24 at Daytona marked the debut of the Grand Touring Prototype category that brought hybrid engine technology to IMSA’s top level.

In other categories:

LMP2: James Allen passed Ben Hanley on the final lap and delivered a victory in the No. 55 ORECA by 0.016 seconds. It’s the second IMSA victory for Proton Competition, which last won at Sebring in 2012. It was the first Rolex 24 victory for Allen and co-drivers Gianmaria Bruni, Fred Poordad and Francesco Pizzi.

GTD Pro: Cooper MacNeil won in the last start of his IMSA career as the No. 79 Mercedes-AMG GT3 scored the first Rolex 24 at Daytona for WeatherTech Racing and the team’s fourth career victory.

MacNeil, who co-drove with Maro Engel, Jules Gounon and Daniel Juncadella, earned his 12th career victory and first at the Rolex 24.

“Winning by last IMSA race is tremendous,” MacNeil said.

GTD: The No. 27 Heart of Racing Team delivered the first Rolex 24 at Daytona for Aston Martin, which has been competing in endurance races at Daytona International Speedway since 1964. Drivers Marco Sorensen, Roman De Angelis, Darren Turner and Ian James (also the team principal) earned the victory in the English brand’s 13th attempt.

It’s also the first Rolex 24 at Daytona win for Heart of Racing, which has seven IMSA wins.

LMP3: Anthony Mantella, Wayne Boyd, Nico Varrone and Thomas Merrill drove the No. 17 AWA Duqueine D08 to victory by 12 laps for the team’s first class win in IMSA.


STATS PACKAGE FOR ROLEX 24 HOURS OF DAYTONA:

Fastest laps by driver

Fastest laps by driver after race (over the weekend)

Fastest laps by driver and class after race

Fastest lap sequence

Lap chart

Leader sequence

Race analysis by lap

Stint analysis

Time cards

Pit stop time cards

Best sector times

Race distance and speed average

Flag analysis

Weather report

NEXT: The 2023 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season will resume with the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring March 18 with coverage across NBC, USA and Peacock.