2016 Week 11 - By-The-Numbers Recap: Detroit
We talked a little during the week about how deep the 2016 450SX field is, and that was on display again in Detroit for the qualifying. Look at Blake Baggett, who qualified 13th, which for him seems quite low at first glance. But who should he have been faster than? Weston Peick or Justin Bogle, maybe? Other than that it goes Musquin / Anderson / Tomac / Canard / Dungey / Grant (OK, that's hard to call) / Reed / Seely / Roczen (I mean, Roczen is in 10th) / Brayton. None of those are guys that you'd expect Baggett to absolutely qualify ahead of. That's how a guy like him, who's supposed to be in the hunt for podiums every week, qualifies 13th.
Speaking of Baggett, he was on his way to redeeming himself to some extent in the Main Event, riding in 3rd & 4th for a bit, then 6th & 7th through Lap 14 -- when he got a flat tire. Flat tire? Apparently because of the rocks that were mentioned often by the announcers. Maybe someone can explain to me: why are there rocks at a Supercross event? Motocross, sure, because sometimes the ground has rocks; but Supercross is choosing it's own dirt to construct the track. Can't they just say, "We would prefer the dirt that doesn't have a whole bunch of rocks in it"? Anyway, Baggett and Justin Brayton (who was in 4th when the flat tire bug got him) deserve some kind of asterisk about their 19th and 18th place finishes, respectively.
While we're on the subject of asterisks, more weirdness happened at Detroit in the Top 3, where Ryan Dungey's comfortable win was penalized down to a 3rd place, apparently because--during
Jason Anderson, though, gets the official win, and had a pretty impressive race, getting a good enough start (7th in the opening section, then quickly moving to 4th) and passing Brayton on Lap 5 to move into 3rd. Anderson then was a beneficiary of Dungey's penalty and Marvin Musquin slipping down on Lap 19.
Marvin Musquin put up his 4th consecutive podium finish (2nd, 3rd, 2nd, 2nd), and though he had a very good race, the inconsistency plagued him again. He's got a reputation for being error-prone, and you could see why in Detroit. He qualified 1st, which is saying something in this field, then in his Heat Race he was running in 2nd when he clipped a landing and went head over heels, lucky to avoid injury -- since he messed up his bike slightly, he left the race. Then, he won his Semi race fairly easily, by 4 seconds. Musquin stayed hot, coming out on Dungey's heels after Dungey's holeshot, and Musquin passed Dungey to take an early lead. Although Dungey flew past Musquin in the whoops section of Lap 2 to recapture the lead, the two of them were outpacing the field. Musquin then rode well, securing his spot in 2nd, right up until Lap 19 where some sort of crash let Anderson go by him. Other than Eli Tomac's fall at Anaheim 2, where he let Ken Roczen pass him right at the finish line, I can't think of another top-tier rider who has fallen at the end of races like this, giving away the race right at the end. Maybe my memory doesn't go back far enough. But this seems like a real issue for Musquin if he plans to someday overtake Dungey and Roczen as the #1 guy in Supercross.
Despite Dungey's penalty and Musquin's late slip up, the headline stories will note that the "Baker's Boys" still had a podium sweep. We'll discus that more below.
Chad Reed seemed to right his ship, though he didn't make it to the podium, and he was 9+ seconds behind the top 3. It was a bit worrying that he had to go through the Semi Race (2nd place) after finishing 5th in his Heat Race (granted, behind Canard, Roczen, Brayton, Anderson), but he got a decent start in the Main Event and held off Eli Tomac late.
Tomac had a terrible start, in 20th, but made up for it by zooming up into 5th. He was doomed by the poor start, though looking back at it, I don't see that he really did anything particularly wrong. He got beat off the line by Dungey and Brayton, which obviously he would prefer not to, but that's easier said than done. Because of that, he got pinned in by those two and by Phillip Nicoletti -- at that point there wasn't really anything Tomac could have done about it.
Ken Roczen got caught in the same situation, though Roczen did have a bit of a bobble about a quarter of a way down the opening straight, which sapped a bit of his speed. But once he was boxed in by that group and Bogle (from what I could tell), there wasn't much he could do except wait for the first turn and then try to catch up. He made his way back to 6th, but he was 10+ seconds back of Tomac. As mentioned, Roczen did qualify 10th, but he was 2nd in his Heat Race. Possibly something was off, though, because in the Main Event, Roczen's fastest lap only ranked 13th out of the riders' fastest laps. It can be hard to judge since Roczen may have been fighting through traffic for most of the race while some others like Dungey, Musquin, or Anderson weren't, but Tomac was fighting through traffic and put up 4 laps that were faster than Roczen's fastest, and Cole Seely, who was also in a similar situation, put up 7 laps faster than Roczen's best. That seems odd for Roczen.
Following up his season-best 8th place last week, Weston Peick finished 7th at Detroit, establishing a new best finish. He was helped out by crashes from Canard and Seely, as well as the flat tires from Brayton and Baggett, though. Peick qualified 11th and was 5th in his Heat Race, but he did win his Semi. His 7th place defied the "This-Week" true talent estimation for him, but I think he still has a way to go in terms of proving that these Top 10 finishes are his new normal.
Though Trey Canard qualified with the 4th best time and won his Heat Race, he got a bad start, 14th after the opening section. He worked his way up to 8th, then had a problem of some sort (not clear from the broadcast), and he had to work his way back again, from around 12th. He finished 8th, which unfortunately for him is his sixth best result this season, after a 5th, a 6th, and three 7ths.
Like Peick, Mike Alessi also had his best finish of the season, in 9th. His next best was 12th at Glendale. He qualified with the 16th-best time and had to go to the Semi, where he finished 4th, so there wasn't any sign prior to the Main Event that he was riding particularly well. But, he got off the line in 5th, and held on from there -- also like Peick, he was helped by some crashes and flat tires, but so were most of the racers. BTW, Alessi was faster than Roczen on 8 of 19 laps (though slower on average by 0.38 seconds per lap).
Justin Bogle rounded out the Top 10, coming from 15th after the opening section. This is his second-best finish, after an 8th in Atlanta.
Notables outside the Top 10:
Cole Seely had a wipeout, taking him off the track about halfway through the first lap. Despite falling to 22nd, he managed to climb back up to #11. It looked like the crash was pretty much his own fault, though, so no one else to blame there.
Josh Grant -- I only mention because he's an interesting case, having a new factory ride and only 1 Supercross race under his belt in 2016. He finished 12th, and was up as high as 9th and as low as 17th. His prediction was around 9th, if you factor in the Stadium Adjustment (11th if you don't).
Phillip Nicoletti had his best finish of the season in 14th (was not included in the prediction, but would have been around #19 or #20 if he was). Nicholas Schmidt tied for his best finish at 16th (also wasn't projected, but would have been 1 spot below Nicoletti).
Aldon's "Baker Boys" Podium Sweep
While the improvement that Baker has instilled in Dungey, Musquin, and Anderson seems real enough, these kinds of stories abound (especially in sports journalism) where some sort of offseason change is credited with a revolutionary impact on an athlete or a whole team -- but no one really checks if this story that "feels" true actually holds water. I think these are the four pieces of evidence from 2016 Supercross that support the current conventional wisdom that "Aldon Baker has greatly improved these riders in a way that no one else can":
1. Ryan Dungey hired Baker and has become the undisputed best rider in Supercross two years running.
2. Jason Anderson hired Baker and has gone from "potential top 10 guy" to "potential top 3 guy".
3. Marvin Musquin hired Baker and has become a "potential top 3 guy".
4. Ken Roczen left Baker, and went from "potential champ" to "2nd place but closer to 3rd than 1st".
Let's take a closer look, and while I don't think any of these are going to be proven absolutely wrong, I think there's some doubt in each. We'll look at Supercross in particular, since it's top of mind, and kind of ignoring outdoor MX. I know there's more to Aldon Baker's track record to support his case as an impactful coach, but here I want to focus on 2016 Supercross:
#1 - Dungey has become the best rider in Supercross. But, prior to him joining Baker in 2014, Dungey was already the best non-Ryan-Villopoto rider in Supercross. Dungey's 2015 and 2016 Supercross seasons have been better than any of his prior seasons, but he's at an age where he should be expected to improve. Also, without Villopoto in the mix, Dungey's results were going to improve regardless (unless someone came from below, like Roczen or Tomac, who are still very young, or Anderson/Musquin who moved up from 250SX).
#2 - Anderson has exceeded most expectations compared to his 2015 450SX season, where he finished 7th. In 2014, before working with Baker, Anderson earned the most points of any rider in 250SX. From there, his improvement to #7 in 2015 and (probably) #3 or 4 in 2016 is impressive but not necessarily something that is out of line with Anderson's expected improvement--without Baker--from a 250SX season winner who was 21 years old (we profiled Anderson, looking at his ceiling based on his entire set of results, pro and amateur).
#3 - Musquin is harder to analyze since he has such a limited history in Supercross, and to boot he was injured in 2014. He won multiple world titles prior to his time with Baker.
#4 - After leaving Baker's training team, Roczen has fallen short of the expectation that he would challenge Dungey for #1 in 450 Supercross. But in 2015, with both riders under Baker, Dungey was clearly performing better than Roczen, although Roczen was injured near the end of the season (through Week 7 when Roczen had his high point of the season in terms of results, he was still 12 points behind Dungey, and it would only go downhill from there). Roczen is still very young and likely to improve, and he has a lot of things going on in his racing and personal life (from what we fans are privy to, anyway) that makes it hard to isolate one specific factor like changing his coach.
All of that said, I do support (in a non-analysis way) the idea that certain coaches provide a substantial advantage that others can't. Pick a sport and you can almost certainly name a few coaches that have sustained success with a rotating set of athletes, for year after year, that goes beyond fortunate circumstances or good luck. If I sponsored a Supercross rider and was posed the question whether I wanted to pay Baker's high price, I think I would say "yes". But I don't think the case is clear cut just based on the 2016 performance of Dungey/Musquin/Anderson/Roczen.