Chase Sexton, Eli Tomac split races in Motocross Round 11 at Ironman; title chase remains razor thin

Sexton Motocross Round 11
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Once more, Eli Tomac and Chase Sexton split motos in Lucas Oil Pro Motocross Round 11 at Ironman Raceway in Crawfordsville, Ind. and kept the championship battle within a single point. Tomac holds the slim advantage as Sexton was awarded the overall win of this round with a tiebreaker.

Before the round began, it would have seemed Tomac had the advantage. He entered the weekend as the defending winner of the last three races on this track while Sexton had one on podium finish in his career.

And by winning Moto 1, Tomac held that advantage. Both riders got off to modest starts with Tomac running sixth at the end of Lap 1 and Sexton 10th. Tomac made his way through the field better in the early stages and was third at the five-minute mark with Sexton running eighth at the time. But as Tomac caught Sexton’s teammate Ken Roczen, the Honda rider was difficult to pass, allowing Sexton to close the gap.

Tomac led Moto 1 with 18 minutes remaining on the 30-minute plus two lap clock – but Sexton was two seconds behind and closing fast. For several laps, the two title contenders battled until Tomac stood his bike up in a turn and lost momentum. Sexton raced past Tomac, but that lit a fire under the championship leader. He got back around Sexton and found another gear that allowed him to open a four-second gap in the final two laps. The points’ lead stood momentarily at four.

“It was an all or nothing situation,” Tomac told MavTV’s Jason Thomas after winning the moto. “That’s what we’re in right now. That’s where I had to dig and that was it. We both passed each other in that same turn.”

Moto 2 was a different story. Sexton earned the holeshot before being passed by Roczen. Knowing the stakes, Sexton and Roczen settled their battle quickly as Tomac charge from fifth on Lap 1 to battle Roczen at the 10-minute mark. Once again, Roczen proved to be hard to pass, giving Sexton a five-second lead. Tomac was able to cut the deficit to less than two seconds, but a mistake that almost caused him to crash in the final minutes of the race dropped him from contention.

“I got out front finally.” Sexton said from the top of the podium. “I’ve been wanting one of those for a while and I just tried to sprint away as soon as I could. Got a good gap, and then got into lappers and made a few mistakes and then Eli closed up on me and I knew it was going to be a hard race.

“It’s going to be a fun race next weekend. We have one point between us. Hopefully we’ll give the fans a good race.”

The day ended as it started and that one-point differential heading into the season finale at Fox Raceway makes this the closest battle in the series’ history. That track has been kinder to Sexton in the past and he won the season-opener there in May, but neither championship contender has been willing to give up any ground in the chase. Round 12 has shaped up to be a head-to-head battle between two riders who have dominated the season.

“I made a big push [before my mistake] and felt like [Sexton] got stuck behind a few lappers,” Tomac said. “And I tried to attack. I could see it and then obviously in the middle of the track, down over the lens, inside single, I went a little too fast, tried a little too hard and got cross-rutted.

“Overall, happy with the day. Happy to break even here.”

On what he considers his home track, Aaron Plessinger finished third behind the championship leaders in both motos to easily take the final position on the podium.

With a 6-4, last week’s winner Jason Anderson took fourth place in the overall.

Christian Craig (5-5) rounded out the top five.

450 results (moto finish)

  1. Chase Sexton, La Moille, Ill., Honda (2-1)
  2. Eli Tomac, Cortez, Colo., Yamaha (1-2)
  3. Aaron Plessinger, Hamilton, Ohio, KTM (3-3)
  4. Jason Anderson, Edgewood, N.M., Kawasaki (6-4)
  5. Christian Craig, Temecula, Calif., Yamaha (5-5)
  6. Ryan Dungey, Belle Plaine, Minn., KTM (4-7)
  7. Ken Roczen, Germany, Honda (7-6)
  8. Malcolm Stewart, Haines City, Fla, Husqvarna (11-8)
  9. Fredrik Noren, Sweden, KTM (9-10)
  10. Dean Wilson, Scotland, Husqvarna, (13-9)

450 points standings

  1. Eli Tomac, Cortez, Colo., Yamaha – 496
  2. Chase Sexton, La Moille, Ill., Honda – 495
  3. Jason Anderson, Edgewood, N.M., Kawasaki – 402
  4. Ken Roczen, Germany, Honda – 373
  5. Christian Craig, Temecula, Calif., Yamaha – 335
  6. Ryan Dungey, Belle Plain, Minn., KTM – 332
  7. Aaron Plessinger, Hamilton, Ohio, KTM – 294
  8. Justin Barcia, Monroe, N.Y., GasGas – 272
  9. Joey Savatgy, Thomasville, Ga., Kawasaki – 218
  10. Shane McElrath, Cantaon, NC, Husqvarna – 197

Jett Lawrence had a chance to wrap up the 250 championship with one round remaining and with a massive lead entering Pro Motocross Round 11, he did not feel the same pressure as Sexton. He refused to rush his way through Moto 1 after starting sixth, but that was good enough for the moment as his two closest rivals, Jo Shimoda rode 14th and Hunter Lawrence was 11th.

All three came through the pack with Jett finding the lead halfway through the moto. He hung on to win that race ahead of RJ Hampshire, who earned his third straight podium.

“I heard you guys talking about how [450s] could go to the last round, so I’m like, you know what, I’ll do the boys a favor and I’ll just come out with a nice third-place [in Moto 2],” Jett said afterward.

The 1-3 finish was enough to award Jett the overall win with Hunter (3-2) in second. Shimoda scored a 5-1 to take the final spot on the podium.

Hunter finished third in Moto 1, but was docked two points for jumping in a section of the track that was under caution.

Meanwhile, Shimoda kept the pressure on by climbing into the top five in a fierce battle with Hunter. He was unable to follow his close friend when a rut broke apart under his bike and sent him to the ground. Shimoda held on to finish fifth and keep his title fight alive.

Shimoda was even better in the second moto. He earned the holeshot and lead the entire distance to win Moto 2 while Jett started the race 12th, eight seconds behind. Jett did what Jett does and picked his way through the field, but he lost a few points in the process and heads to the season finale at Fox Raceway with a 41-point advantage.

“Starts,” Shimoda said. “First moto, not good at all and then second moto an okay start. Just kept charging and took the win.”

Hampshire failed to keep his podium streak alive and finished fourth in Moto 2. He was fourth overall.

Nate Thrasher rounded out the top five with a 4-6.

The future of the 250 class showcased a battle between Ryder DiFrancesco and Haiden Deegan, who was making his pro debut.

The two raced nose-to-tail just outside the top 10 until Deegan found a second wind and put a gap on his rival. With two minutes remaining, Deegan crashed hard enough to damage his bike. He would crash again on the first lap of Moto 2 and failed to earn points in the round, but the strong runs by both riders in Moto 1 suggest this will be an interesting rivalry.

250 results (moto finish)

  1. Jett Lawrence, Australia, Honda (1-3)
  2. Hunter Lawrence, Australia, Honda (3-2)
  3. Jo Shimoda, Japan, Kawasaki (5-1)
  4. RJ Hampshire, Hudson, Fla., Husqvarna (2-4)
  5. Nate Thrasher, Livingston, Tenn., Yamaha (4-6)
  6. Justin Cooper, Cold Spring Harbor, NY, Yamaha (6-5)
  7. Max Vohland, Sacramento, Calif., KTM (7-7)
  8. Jalek Swoll, Belleview, Fla., KTM (11-8)
  9. Cameron McAdoo, Sioux City, Iowa, Kawasaki (10-9)
  10. Seth Hammaker, Bainbridge, Penn., Kawasaki (12-10)

250 points standings

  1. Jett Lawrence, Australia, Honda – 478
  2. Jo Shimoda, Japan, Kawasaki – 437
  3. Hunter Lawrence, Australia, Honda – 432
  4. Justin Cooper, Cold Spring Harbor, NY – 377
  5. RJ Hampshire, Hudson, Fla., Husqvarna – 314
  6. Max Vohland, Sacramento, Calif., KTM – 279
  7. Nate Thrasher, Livingston, Tenn., Yamaha – 231
  8. Seth Hammaker, Bainbridge, Penn., Kawasaki – 227
  9. Michael Mosiman, Sebastapol, Calif., GasGas – 208
  10. Levi Kitchen, Washougal, Wash., Yamaha – 193

Round 1, Fox Raceway: Chase Sexton takes early lead in the championship hunt
Round 2, Hangtown: After 12 years of trying, Jason Anderson wins a Motocross race
Round 3, Thunder Valley: Three races, three winners as Ken Roczen takes the top spot
Round 4, High Point: Now four-for-four, Eli Tomac takes the trophy
Round 5, RedBud: Tomac becomes first in 2022 with two wins; Hunter Lawrence takes red plate in 250s
Round 6, Southwick: Tomac’s domination continues with a second perfect round
Round 7, Spring Creek: Tomac takes points’ lead with another 1-1 day
Round 8, Washougal: Sexton brackets the first eight weeks with second win
Round 9, Unadilla: Sexton retakes points’ lead by one with back-to-back wins
Round 10, Budds Creek: Anderson wins as points lead swaps for third time in four weeks

The Thermal Club wants an IndyCar race, and series executives liked its initial impact at test

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THERMAL, Calif. – Many teams in the NTT IndyCar Series questioned the relevancy of having a two-day preseason test at The Thermal Club.

The team owners, drivers and engineers believed the 17-turn, 3.067-mile race course that winds and twists its way through a gated private community (about 45 minutes southeast of Palm Springs) had no relevance to any track on the 17-race schedule.

To the leaders of IndyCar, however, there was plenty of relevance to hosting its “Spring Training” at a sort of motorsports country club that caters to extremely wealthy residents who also are automotive enthusiasts.

“Both with our stakeholders and the media that covers IndyCar, we wanted them to know that we are going to do things differently,” Penske Entertainment CEO Mark Miles told NBC Sports from the private VIP viewing area that overlooks the long straights and twisting turns of the course. “This is going to be a year when we expect our growth to go to a whole new level.

“What better way to send that message than to be at a place we have never been that is exceptional?

“The quality of this place; the facilities are off the charts. The customer service, the welcoming feeling you get from the staff here. The track itself is fast. The drivers are having a great time on it.

FRIDAY SPEEDSThird session l Fourth session l Combined

‘AN AMAZING PLACE’: IndyCar and its big plans for Thermal

“It really sent a message to our other promoters and our drivers and team owners that something is up. We want fans around the country and the sports industry to know that something is going on with IndyCar this year.”

The Thermal Club is a concept driven by Tim Rogers, who made his fortune by supplying gasoline to 7-Eleven stores in 36 states. He wanted to create a private community that mixed multimillion-dollar homes and luxury villas with a high-speed race course.

The two-day IndyCar “Spring Training” was the most ambitious motorsports project yet for The Thermal Club.

Rogers wants it to be the first step in a long-term goal for the community.

“Our endgame is we want to host an IndyCar Series race at The Thermal Club one day,” Rogers told NBC Sports as IndyCar hit the track again Friday morning. “This was a good trial to see how the facility can handle it and if the facility works for them.”

Felix Rosenqvist makes laps in the No. 6 Arrow McLaren Dallara-Chevrolet during the first day of NTT IndyCar Series testing (Andy Abeyta/The Desert Sun / USA TODAY Sports Images).

The two-day test was closed to the general public. It was open only to credentialed news media, members of the Thermal Club and a limited number of their guests.

With the spectacular backdrop of the Coachella Valley that is rimmed with snow-capped mountains, The Thermal Club could provide a great setting for an NBC telecast of an IndyCar Series race (and possibly line up a big sponsor for a return on its investment with a larger than normal audience during a ripe time such as the first weekend of February).

NASCAR is using that same model Sunday at the Los Angeles Coliseum by hosting the Busch Light Clash. The National Football League’s AFC and NFC Championship games were last weekend and next Sunday is the Super Bowl.

“That could work, but we have room where we could separate the public and the private members area, too,” Rogers said. “We could accommodate 4,000 or so of the general public.

“This would be a premium event for a premium crowd.”

Rogers’ dream of The Thermal Club began 11 years ago. He will talk to IndyCar about a return for Spring Training next year with hopes of getting a date on the schedule for 2025.

“Whatever fits,” Rogers said.

Miles and Penske Entertainment, the owners of IndyCar, Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and the Indianapolis 500, realize Rogers has an ambitious dream of getting a race on the schedule.

Miles, however, isn’t ready to indicate that a race at Thermal is part of IndyCar’s future (though drivers seem open to the concept).

“Tim and everybody at The Thermal Club have done a phenomenal job of being hosts here for this test,” Miles said. “Everybody is very happy we are here, and I expect we will find a way to continue to be here. Whether that means a race and when is really a bridge we aren’t ready to cross yet.

“We really like opening the championship season each year in St. Petersburg, Florida. We’ll have to see. But it’s a great way to start the season in this way, and right now, we are happy to be here.”

Indycar Series Test - Day 1
Defending IndyCar champion Will Power takes laps at The Thermal Club during the first day of the track’s first test (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

On track, it was a successful two-day test session with 27 car/driver combinations that will compete in IndyCar in 2023. It’s the largest field for IndyCar since the 1990s. There were a few spins here and there but no major incidents across 2,560 laps.

Kyle Kirkwood led the final session Friday while getting acquainted with his new No. 27 team at Andretti Autosport. Kirkwood has replaced Alexander Rossi at Andretti, whom Kirkwood drove for in Indy Lights.

His time of 1 minute, 38.827 seconds (111.721 mph) around the 3.067-mile road course was the fastest of the fourth and final session. But the fastest speed over two days was defending Indy 500 winner Marcus Ericsson of Chip Ganassi Racing in the Friday morning session (1:38.4228, 112.182 mph in the No. 8 Honda).

Callum Ilott of Juncos Hollinger Racing was second in the final session at 1:38.8404 (111.707 mph) in the No. 77 Chevrolet. Rookie Marcus Armstrong of New Zealand was third at 1:38.8049 (111.707 mph) in the No. 11 Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing. Alex Palou of Chip Ganassi Racing was fourth at 1:38.8718 (111.672 mph) in the No. 10. Defending NTT IndyCar Series champion Will Power of Team Penske rounded out the top five at 1:38.9341 (111.602 mph) in the No. 12 Chevrolet.

Ericsson was the fastest in combined times followed by Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s Christian Lundgaard at 1:38.5682 in the No. 45 Honda, Kirkwood, Ilott and Armstrong. Positions 3-5 speeds were from the final practice session on Friday.

Indycar Series Test - Day 1
With members’ houses in the background, Romain Grosjean navigates the turns of The Thermal Club in his No. 28 Dallara-Honda (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

Drivers didn’t know what to expect before hitting the track. After the two-day test was over, NBC Sports asked several drivers what they learned from The Thermal Club.

“I think it’s a first-class facility, no doubt,” two-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden of Team Penske said. “I think the entire facility here at Thermal really rolled out the red carpet for us. They did a tremendous job.

“It was a fairly flawless test, I would say, for two days. I think the great thing about this was we had a two-day test, which was fantastic. You got to have this warmup; this preseason build. That was the biggest positive for me, is that we were here, we were running cars. It was a great facility to do it at.

IndyCar Thermal Club test
Josef Newgarden said his No. 2 team (which has a new lead engineer) used The Thermal Club test as an opportunity for building cohesion (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).
Indycar Series Test - Day 2
Josef Newgarden (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

“I think the track was a lot more fun than we anticipated. It was challenging, definitely technical. I don’t know how relevant it is. For us, it wasn’t really relevant to anywhere we’re going, but that’s OK.”

But even though the track has no sector particularly similar to any road or street course on the schedule, there still were benefits.

“In a lot of ways, it is relevant,” Newgarden said. “For us it was relevant for building the team up, trying to work in a competitive environment, be competitive together. That’s everything. So regardless of is the setup going to apply to a certain track or another, (it) doesn’t really matter.

“For us, it was applying the principles of how we’re going to work together. From that standpoint, it was very productive for everybody. Raceability-wise, it’s hard to say. It was chewing tires up. Big drop-off from run one to two. I think from a race standpoint, that would be quite positive. You’d have big tire deg here.

“You’d have to do more work on runoff areas if we wanted to race here, but it’s possible. I don’t think it would take much effort to do the things to run an actual race.”

Indycar Series Test - Day 1
Will Power (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images)

Kirkwood found speed in his Andretti Autosport machine, but he used the test to create a smooth working relationship with his new crew.

“I wouldn’t say that we found something here that is going to translate to anywhere, right?” the 2021 Indy Lights champion said. “This is a very unique track, although it was a lot of fun to drive, and it kind of surprised me in the amount of grip that it actually produced.

“It was quite a bit faster than what we expected.”

Many of the NTT IndyCar Series teams will test later this month at Sebring, Florida, as they prepare for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg to kick off the season March 5.

“It’s a very nice facility, a nice area, it’s pretty cool to have two days of testing here with a lot of high-profile people,” two-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Will Power of Team Penske told NBC Sports. “It’s a very technical, tough track.

“It’s pretty good.”

Indycar Series Test - Day 2
IndyCar drivers turns laps on the second day of testing at The Thermal Club, which is nestled in the Coachella Valley that is ringed by mountains in Southern California (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

The Thermal Club received rave reviews, welcomed IndyCar and provided exposure to the movers and shakers of the business community that own the luxury villas and homes in this ultra-rich community.

Could it be a venue of the future for a series that sells lifestyle as much as on-track competition?

“This is a fantastic facility and the circuit is a fast circuit,” team owner Bobby Rahal told NBC Sports. “It’s pretty exciting to watch the cars run around here. I think it would be attractive to people.

“I’ll leave that up to Mark Miles and (IndyCar President) Jay Frye and everybody else whether we have a race here, but why not?

“It’s a great place.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500