DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (June 6, 2012) - In the span of seven days and three AMA Pro National Guard SuperBike contests, double defending champion Josh Hayes significantly altered the shape of the developing 2012 title fight.
What was once an evenly matched showdown featuring the Monster Energy Graves Yamaha pilot and his Yoshimura Suzuki-mounted rival Blake Young has shifted decidedly in Hayes' favor.
The warning signs were actually visible a round earlier in Sonoma, Calif. However, despite his vastly superior pace, Hayes opened the door for Young with a Sunday crash, and the Suzuki man rushed through it to complete the third straight Hayes/Young victory split to open the season.
Sonoma was thought by some to be a special case -- a track where Hayes and his Yamaha YZF-R1 have repeatedly proven to hold an edge over the rest of the field. Young fully expected to be back on even ground, if not hold an advantage of his own, once the tour travelled to Miller Motorsports Park and Road America -- circuits on which he was victorious last season.
It didn't play out that way. Hayes further solidified the trend and came away with three unchallenged victories to complete back-to-back perfect points weekends.
Hayes registered two crushing double-digit margins of victories on Young's home track this past weekend in the Subway SuperBike Doubleheader and took control of the championship chase in the process, now boasting a relatively healthy 20-point lead (257-237).
"I've had a great race weekend," Hayes remarked." I've got good starts and my bike was just great from the beginning. We haven't really changed anything chassis-wise since last weekend at Miller. Things are just clicking and rolling well."
While Hayes hopes to continue his recent run of form, he admits it won't be easy and expects Young to come back swinging: "Hopefully I can take this same thing to Barber when we go there next, and some of the other tighter, more twisty tracks, and continue to push my limits and figure out how far I can take the bike and keep this rolling. I don't necessarily think it's going to work out that way. It gets to be a little bit harder to put much time into it -- the splits are shorter and things happen faster and it's pretty easy to make mistakes.
"But I'm definitely looking forward to it and I'm in a comfortable spot championship-wise. I can just focus on racing well and keep going and putting down the laps and making them work to catch up to me."
Hayes wasn't the only factory Yamaha pilot to take a big step forward in the past two weeks. His teammate, Josh Herrin, also stepped forward to harass Young while Hayes made his escape. He actually beat him for second at MMP, and then pushed him to the finish in Elkhart Lake on Sunday, to close out a double-third-place weekend.
Home track hero Young was clearly frustrated by his inability to run with Hayes on the upgraded R1 and was openly hoping his hard-working crew might somehow find similar improvements with his GSX-R1000 in the near future.
After picking up a pair of runner-up results, Young said, "I admit I'm a little disappointed. I'd hoped to win at my home track. But this weekend was definitely a learning experience, and I know that we have some improvements to make. We have a few weeks before the next race, so we'll go back and figure out what we need to do to come out strong for Barber."
Young minimized the damage by edging out Herrin to the checkered flag but acknowledged Herrin's efforts. "Riding with Josh Herrin was good. It's good to see him get up there and dice it out with me. He's coming around and riding fairly well."
Herrin said, "I thought it went great... Blake and I had a pretty good battle; we passed each other back and forth. I tried to get him but I didn't have any real reason to try to stuff it in there in the last corner on the last lap and risk losing the front or something. It was a really good race -- the R1 was going really good today. I don't know how I didn't get the drive on him to start/finish."
However, while thrilled to be taking the fight to 13-time race winner Young, Herrin quickly recognized that his teammate is still some distance out in front. He explained "Right now, Josh (Hayes) is riding in a class by himself, so I'm happy to be racing for second in my rookie SuperBike season. Not that I wouldn't like to win, of course!"
While Herrin has stepped forward to challenge for second on more than one occasion, his early-season sparring partner, National Guard Jordan Suzuki'sRoger Hayden, only saw his recent woes intensify.
Following his three-crash weekend in Utah, Hayden struggled with electronics issues and jumped the start in Sunday's race. The end result was uncharacteristic 13th- and 17th-place finishes.
His teammate, Jordan Suzuki's Ben Bostrom, ran well for the team, however. The former premier class champion posted a pair of fourth-place finishes, and pressured Young and Herrin during the opening stages of Sunday's race.
"I just can't thank the Michael Jordan Motorsports crew enough for helping me continue to chip away at the leaders," said Bostrom. "They made my job awesome at Road America. Racing the Jordan Suzuki GSX-R1000 this weekend was the most fun I've had on a bike in years."
Geoff May and Danny Eslick performed above expectations at Road America. Despite its status as the home circuit for the Wisconsin-based Erik Buell Racing outfit, the multiple long straights were thought to put a damper on the EBR 1190RS twins that rail around the corners but are overmatched in terms of sheer horsepower compared with the big fours.
Team Amsoil/Hero EBR's May completed a relatively successful weekend despite the disadvantage with eighth and sixth place results, while Team Hero EBR's Eslick bounced back from a smoking machine-related black flag on Saturday to finish in the top five on Sunday.
The EBRs worked in conjunction during the race, drafting down the straights and leapfrogging one another into the corners.
Foremost Insurance Pegram Racing's Larry Pegram collected Saturday's fifth aboard the improving BMW S1000RR but was hindered by transmission issues on Sunday and could only manage a tenth.
Local hero Jason Farrell shocked with a sixth-place effort on his Farrell Performance/Southeast Sales Kawasaki ZX-10R in Saturday's contest, taking full advantage of his local track knowledge following afternoon showers left some in the field tentative.
Young's Yoshimura teammate, Chris Clark notched up a pair of sevenths.
"Right before the first race, we caught the tail end of a big storm," said Clark. "But by the time the race started, it was drying. Unfortunately, I got behind a rider whose bike was spitting oil. Once he was off the track, I put my head down on the Yoshimura Suzuki GSX-R1000 and gained time. By the white flag, it was raining again and the race was red flagged, but I kept pushing and cut the gap even more. Sunday's race was a hard-fought battle for fifth. Unfortunately, I made a mistake and wound up seventh. But I'm happy with the bike and my lap times show that. Now, I'm looking forward to Barber and moving forward."
As with the EBRs, the KTM RC8Rs shine in the corners but can't compete down the straights. That made life somewhat difficult for the Wisconsin-based KTM/HMC Racing squad at Road America.
However, they were back to full strength after Stefan Nebel missed the previous round due to visa-related issues. Nebel and teammate, Chris Fillmore, raced together around the 4.05-mile circuit with Fillmore twice finishing in the top ten (two ninths) and German ace Nebel collecting a tenth and an eleventh, despite both orange machines suffering from clutch issues on Sunday.
"It was fun to ride with my teammate (Saturday)," remarked Fillmore. "We were able to push each other to the finish and we were both happy we were able to put our KTM/HMC machines in the top ten."
"I am bummed about falling outside of the top ten," remarked Nebel following Sunday's contest. "I am still happy that Chris (Fillmore) and I were able to finish inside the top ten on Saturday but it would have been nice to duplicate that today. I am very happy to see the progress our team is making in its first year and it is wonderful to hear all the positive feedback from the fans that attend each race. We feel that we have a lot of support from the AMA Pro SuperBike fans and it is greatly appreciated."
Australian David Anthony claimed a top ten of his own, putting the Kneedraggers.com/Motul/Fly Suzuki GSX-R1000 eighth on Sunday.
In addition to his growing points lead, Hayes now boasts six victories on the season -- twice as many as he scored in all of 2011 despite being less than halfway through the '12 campaign. One more and he will equal his best single-season campaign in terms of wins ('09 and '10).
However, Barber Motorsports Park is next up, a track at which Hayes has never won a National Guard SuperBike race and the venue of one of his two non-podiums last season. Young, meanwhile, clawed back from a difficult lead up to the race to finish on the podium twice, including an improbable Sunday victory taken over Hayes.
AMA Pro Road Racing heads to Birmingham, Ala. for the Triumph Superbike Classic at the highly-acclaimed Barber Motorsports Park June 22-24. Tickets can be purchased at barbermotorsports.com