So far, the closely-fought five-way battle for the 2011 AMA Supercross Championship has been fought on pretty good terms, but the intensity levels went up a notch in Georgia on Sunday.
James Stewart took the holeshot but, maintaining hard won momentum after his first win of the year in San Diego last weekend, Australian Chad Reed was right on his tail, the pair immediately on a level above anyone else in the field, with fellow contender Trey Canard ahead of Ryans Villopoto and Dungey but losing ground on the leaders.
It was all set to get pretty tasty… With Reed riding shotgun, Stewart made a mistake early doors, spinning out and allowing Reedy through - from then on, it was a pure battle of wills, Stewart having just the merest edge on pace, whilst Reed was a touch more consistent, the balance between them perfectly for the first three quarters of the race.
As the lead duo held a blinking contest, Canard crumbled and fell from third, promoting the Ryan brothers to third (Villopoto) and fourth (Dungey), ’Poto able to make any headway on Stewart, whilst Dungey gently reversed away from Villopoto.
But with less than five laps left Stewart almost fell, handing Reed his biggest gap of the night, and it looked like it was all over.
Fortunately, no-one had thought to tell Stewart that, and the Yamaha rider was straight back on the pace, Reed’s lead far too slender for the Thunder from Down Under to take for granted - still pushing hard through the traffic, Reed went to go the wrong side of Chris Blose; heeding the blue flags, Blose tried to move out of the way of the leaders, but opted for the same line that Reed picked, holding the Two Two Motorsports rider up and giving Stewart the lifeline he needed.
With the clock ticking down, the pair of them were wheel to wheel for the win, but Reed looked capable of holding the advantage right until they closed up on another lapper - this time, Reed hesitated just a fraction of a second, and that was all it took for Stewart to dive to the inside and make the pass for the lead.
By this time, there was barely more than a lap left and the pair was absolutely on the limit for the win. Stewart was looking quick and tidy whilst Reed was looking left and right for a way back past.
With less than half a lap to go, it was time for desperate measures - heading into 180 degree bowl turn, Reed cut in tight on the way in and headed straight to the outside of the exit to head Stewart off in a textbook block pass.
It’s a measure of the blinding pace and commitment of these stars, however, that what would have been a tough manoeuvre that would have led to a bit of contact maybe ten years ago, now leads almost inevitably to a crash - Stewart was pinned through the turn and had nowhere to go when Reed took his line.
The rear half of Reed’s Honda heavily sideswiped the front of Stewart’s Yamaha, the San Manuel Rider unable to avoid falling into Reed and the pair of them ending on the ground.
As they struggled to remount, a surprised and (assumedly) delighted Villopoto zipped by for the lead with less than half a lap to go, while Dungey was right with them as they got going - having perhaps understandably lost a little of his equanimity, Stewart forcibly heaved himself back aboard his bike by using Reed’s Honda as a step, then proceeded to spend the remainder of the lap trying to cut across Reed.
Dungey (assumedly almost as delighted with his gift as Villopoto was with the win) snaked past the pair of them to steal second, whilst Reed put a move on Stewart at the death to take the last step of the podium, the man who started the last lap first crossing the line fourth.
It was a humdinger of a race. Was Reed’s move a fair one? I think it was hard, but being right on the leader’s back wheel with half a lap to run, he simply had to try something.
The move put me in mind of something Martin Brundle once said of Ayrton Senna - Senna, he said, when making a pass on you would put himself into a position where the decision was up to you whether there was a collision or not.
Reed put himself into a position where Stewart would run into him if he didn‘t back off - James kept it pinned and they hit (although, in all fairness, with his corner speed Stewart could have had just fractions of a second to make the decision).
If Stewart had taken the inside line, the door wouldn’t have been there for Reed to dart through - but you can change a lot of things with enough ifs and buts. Anyhoo, the win means that Villopoto now has a ten point gap over Stewart.
Reed is Eleven points in arrears to Stewart, Canard is now four behind Reed with reigning champion Dungey a point behind Canard - it is still anyone’s to take. In the 250F class, Blake Wharton qualified out of the LCQ to lead the charge into turn one ahead of Justin Barcia.
Wharton edged away as Barcia and Blake Baggett battled bitterly, but the man on the move was Dean Wilson, the youngster recovering from a midpack start to move through the field - having made his way to second, Wilson was gifted the lead as Wharton fell, promoting Barcia and Baggett to second and third.
Wilson stayed solid to seal a fine first win while Barcia hung on for second ahead of Baggett and Wharton.
Next week - Daytona. This will sort the men from the boys….