Ryan Dungey on Ken Roczen, Cooper Webb Supercross chances


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.”

With throaty roar, NASCAR Next Gen Camaro is taking Le Mans by storm on global stage

Le Mans 24 Hour Race - Car Parade
Chris Graythen/Getty Images

LE MANS, France — The V8 engine of the NASCAR Chevrolet Camaro has a distinct growl that cannot go unnoticed even among the most elite sports cars in the world at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

When the Hendrick Motorsports crew fired up the car inside Garage 56, NASCAR chairman Jim France broke into a huge grin and gave a thumbs up.

“The only guy who didn’t cover his ears,” laughed seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson.

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France has been waiting since 1962 – the year his father, NASCAR founder Bill France Sr., brought him to his first 24 Hours of Le Mans – to hear the roar of a stock car at the most prestigious endurance race in the world.

A path finally opened when NASCAR developed its Next Gen car, which debuted last year. France worked out a deal to enter a car in a specialized “Innovative Car” class designed to showcase technology and development. The effort would be part of NASCAR’s 75th celebration and it comes as Le Mans marks its 100th.

Once he had the approval, France persuaded Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet and Goodyear – NASCAR’s winningest team, manufacturer and tire supplier – to build a car capable of running the twice-around-the-clock race.

The race doesn’t start until Saturday, but NASCAR’s arrival has already been wildly embraced and France could not be more thrilled.

“Dad’s vision, to be able to follow it, it took awhile to follow it up, and my goal was to outdo what he accomplished,” France told The Associated Press. “I just hope we don’t fall on our ass.”

The car is in a class of its own and not racing anyone else in the 62-car field. But the lineup of 2010 Le Mans winner Mike Rockenfeller, 2009 Formula One champion Jenson Button and Johnson has been fast enough; Rockenfeller put down a qualifying lap that was faster than every car in the GTE AM class by a full three seconds.

The Hendrick Motorsports crew won its class in the pit stop competition and finished fifth overall as the only team using a manual jack against teams exclusively using air jacks. Rick Hendrick said he could not be prouder of the showing his organization has made even before race day.

“When we said we’re gonna do it, I said, ‘Look, we can’t do this half-assed. I want to be as sharp as anybody out there,” Hendrick told AP. “I don’t want to be any less than any other team here. And just to see the reaction from the crowd, people are so excited about this car. My granddaughter has been sending me all these TikTok things that fans are making about NASCAR being at Le Mans.”

This isn’t NASCAR’s first attempt to run Le Mans. The late France Sr. brokered a deal in 1976, as America celebrated its bicentennial, to bring two cars to compete in the Grand International class and NASCAR selected the teams. Herschel McGriff and his son, Doug, drove a Wedge-powered, Olympia Beer-sponsored Dodge Charger, and Junie Donlavey piloted a Ford Torino shared by Richard Brooks and Dick Hutcherson.

Neither car came close to finishing the race. McGriff, now 95 and inducted into NASCAR’s Hall of Fame in January, is in Le Mans as France’s guest, clad head-to-toe in the noticeable Garage 56 uniforms.

“I threw a lot of hints that I would like to come. And I’ve been treated as royalty,” McGriff said. “This is unbelievable to me. I recognize nothing but I’m anxious to see everything. I’ve been watching and seeing pictures and I can certainly see the fans love their NASCAR.”

The goal is to finish the full race Sunday and, just maybe, beat cars from other classes. Should they pull off the feat, the driver trio wants its own podium celebration.

“I think people will talk about this car for a long, long time,” said Rockenfeller, who along with sports car driver Jordan Taylor did much of the development alongside crew chief Chad Knaus and Greg Ives, a former crew chief who stepped into a projects role at Hendrick this year.

“When we started with the Cup car, we felt already there was so much potential,” Rockenfeller said. “And then we tweaked it. And we go faster, and faster, at Le Mans on the SIM. But you never know until you hit the real track, and to be actually faster than the SIM. Everybody in the paddock, all the drivers, they come up and they are, ‘Wow, this is so cool,’ and they were impressed by the pit stops. We’ve overachieved, almost, and now of course the goal is to run for 24 hours.”

The car completed a full 24-hour test at Sebring, Florida, earlier this year, Knaus said, and is capable of finishing the race. Button believes NASCAR will leave a lasting impression no matter what happens.

“If you haven’t seen this car live yet, it’s an absolute beast,” Button said. “When you see and hear it go by, it just puts a massive smile on your face.”

For Hendrick, the effort is the first in his newfound embrace of racing outside NASCAR, the stock car series founded long ago in the American South. Aside from the Le Mans project, he will own the Indy car that Kyle Larson drives for Arrow McLaren in next year’s Indianapolis 500 and it will be sponsored by his automotive company.

“If you’d have told me I’d be racing at Le Mans and Indianapolis within the same year, I’d never have believed you,” Hendrick told AP. “But we’re doing both and we’re going to do it right.”

Le Mans 24 Hour Race - Car Parade
Fans gather around the NASCAR Next Gen Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 that is the Garage 56 entry for the 100th 24 Hours of Le Mans at the Circuit de la Sarthe (Chris Graythen/Getty Images).

General Motors is celebrating the achievement with a 2024 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 Garage 56 Edition and only 56 will be available to collectors later this year.

“Even though Chevrolet has been racing since its inception in 1911, we’ve never done anything quite like Garage 56,” said GM President Mark Reuss. “A NASCAR stock car running at Le Mans is something fans doubted they would see again.”

The race hasn’t even started yet, but Hendrick has enjoyed it so much that he doesn’t want the project to end.

“It’s like a shame to go through all this and do all this, and then Sunday it’s done,” Hendrick said. “It’s just really special to be here.”