Ken Roczen has his eye on his first Monster Energy Supercross championship while his principal rival Cooper Webb guns for a second – and another former champ Ryan Dungey has been watching with interest. The battle resumes this weekend at Daytona International Speedway on a course specially designed by Ricky Carmichael.
One of the two 2021 rivals earned his first Supercross championship in 2019 when Webb held off Eli Tomac by 18 points. Roczen finished third last year behind Tomac and Webb.
The closest Roczen has come to the top spot was second in 2016, 60 points behind Dungey as he won his third of four top-division championships. Dungey also finished second three times, so he’s had experience being both the chaser and the chased.
As 2021 hits the halfway point, it is shaping up to be a two-man show. Roczen holds a six-point advantage on Webb. Both riders have earned three wins in the first eight rounds of the Supercross season.
“It looks like it’s coming down to these two,” Dungey told NBC Sports. “It’s going to come down to positioning yourself right off the start. Getting good starts. Being up front. We saw Ken come from behind (in Orlando 2). He got to fourth, which was pretty respectable, but as you could see Cooper was already up front and was able to get the lead and just maintain that.”
Respectable yes, but fourth is about as bad as either of these drivers has finished this season. Webb has only one finish outside the top five. He was ninth in the opening round at Houston, one of just two races won by a rider other than himself or Roczen.
Roczen finished second behind Justin Barcia in that race and was fifth the following week. Until his fourth in Orlando 2, he swept the podium afterward. And that is what it will take for either rider to win the title this year, according to Dungey.
“It is getting more competitive and there has been a little more inconsistency over the past three years,” Dungey said. “This year we’re seeing more consistency out of the riders.
“You’ve got to win and win consistently. I think you need five to six wins, but the biggest thing is not having bad nights. To Cooper’s credit, last year he was sick coming into the first couple of rounds and that really put him in a hole. Then he had that big crash in Dallas. He probably could have been there and won the championship had he not had those bad races.
“If you can get rid of those bad races and consistently finish in the top five, mostly on the podium and winning races, you’re going to be there in the end.”
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When Dungey won the 2017 championship, it was his third consecutive 450 class win and fourth overall. That snapped a four-year streak by Ryan Villopoto. Before they combined for eight straight top-division championships, Jeremy McGrath grabbed six in a seven-year span from 1993 through 2000. Carmichael took five of six from 2001 though 2006.
And that seemed to be the direction of the sport. One rider found that perfect situation and was unbeatable for a long time.
But Dungey’s retirement at the end of 2017 opened the door for Jason Anderson to win his first title in 2018 and for the moment has changed the direction of the sport. Webb won his first in 2019 followed by Tomac in 2020. If Roczen manages to hold off Webb this year, he will be the fourth consecutive first-time winner.
Dungey believes two things are in play. He won his first top-division SX championship as a rookie in 2010 but then watched Villopoto secure the next four. That experience gives him a unique perspective.
“I remember after I won my first Supercross championship, you lose some motivation because the first time you do it you’re just trying to get your first,” Dungey said. “You have to find it deep down inside you: why you want to do it again. I think a lot of guys like Villopoto, he wanted to be a leader for the sport. I did to.
“You want to be that guy that’s consistent week to week and year after year. It seems that some of these guys, the year after they won the championship the next year they come out and they’re not as sharp, or hungry.”
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But the string of new champions also says something about where the sport is.
“The field is getting deeper,” Dungey continued. “There’s not one, two or three guys. There’s a whole lot more talent in the field that will make your job harder if you do make a bad start. You’re probably not going to get to second because you have to work through those guys that 10 or 15 years ago you might have blown their doors off. This year they’re giving you fits and they make it just hard enough they ruin your momentum in a race.”
Dungey refused to pick a favorite for the 2021 championship, but admits that the ball is in Roczen’s court.
“Ken seems to be in a really good mental space, so if he can keep that going he could be hard to beat for sure,” Dungey said. “He is going for his first Supercross championship, so there is the urgency to want to get that first one where Cooper has already got it – that takes the weight off him.
“It’s sustainable. Mentally, these guys are going to be digging deep to do so. Ken has been a really good starter, more so than Cooper so there’s an advantage for him. Ken is going to have to keep the focus on himself and keep applying himself like he has and if he does that, he can be champion.”