By Aaron Bearden
For a short time on Saturday night, it appeared Jason Anderson had finally opened the door for a true championship fight.
As it turns out, he was just making things interesting.
Anderson continued his consistent march toward his first Monster Energy AMA Supercross title in Indianapolis, clawing his way back to a fourth-place finish despite rolling out of the race’s first turn in 21st after an early crash.
As a result, he retained his heavy championship advantage, leaving the Hoosier State a full 35 points clear of race winner Marvin Musquin with only five races remaining in the season.
In many ways, Saturday’s snow-filled afternoon in Indiana served as a microcosm of the entire 2018 Supercross season.
A few of Anderson’s closest competitors excelled to make minor gains on his lead, while at least one rider threw away his title dreams with a big accident.
Through it all, Anderson soldiered on in his usual position — quiet, focused and consistent. In other words, he did what was required of him in this season’s unusual championship race.
In a year marred by attrition, consistency has been as more important to sustained success than race wins.
Eli Tomac continued to prove that point in the 450SX main event, suffering another big blow — both physically and in the standings.
The veteran Tomac started the event with a surge to second, and then proceeded to stalk Musquin through the opening laps. But the Coloradan’s race quickly went awry in spectacular fashion mid-race when he missed a quad jump, landing hard and falling off of his bike.
For a moment Tomac sat on the track, stunned and showing signs of pain. He continued on after assistance from the track safety team, but limped home a subpar 15th.
Issues like Saturday’s crash have been the plight of Tomac’s title chase this season. The 25-year-old’s five wins lead the tour, but it’s been an uneven campaign — to say the least. He crashed while leading by three seconds in the season opener at Anaheim, missed the second race of the year at Houston with the resulting injury and in Indy he tallied his fourth finish of 13th or worse.
Those results have marred what once appeared to be a promising title campaign, leaving Tomac fighting off disappointment as he chases race victories.
“Last year was our breakout year,” Tomac told JeffGluck.com prior to Saturday’s race. “We really started clicking off race wins and barely missed the championship by a handful of points. This year’s goal was to get those race wins again and be in the title hunt.
“We’re a ways out of it, so it’s a bummer that way. Now we’re just racing every weekend looking for a win.”
Musquin finds himself in a similar position.
The 2018 season has been arguably Musquin’s finest run, with two wins and a recent stretch of nine consecutive top-five finishes that have elevated the Frenchman to second in the standings.
He’s been the strongest rider in the field for the better part of two months, running within sight of the leaders every week as the season slowly winds down. But unfortunately for Musquin, the push appears to be all for naught.
Musquin started the season off with a victory in Anaheim, but a crash in his heat race kept him out of the main event in Houston before returning the following week with a quiet 13th-place showing in the second Anaheim date.
In the weeks since then, Musquin has had the best average finish in the field. But thanks to a 10-race winless stretch and Anderson’s impressive year, it hasn’t mattered.
The 28-year-old Musquin is still happy with his results, and at 35 points out his title chase is far from over. But his early issues have left this season with lingering thoughts of what could have been — a storyline reminiscent of his quest for an outdoor title last year.
“If you look at last year outdoors, it was the same,” Musquin said. “I was winning a lot at the end, but it was too late and I came up short on the championship.
“This season has been crazy. A lot of guys have gotten injured. I got injured in the second round and was far back in the championship, and I came back when the other guys got hurt. I know it can be easy to say that the other guys got injured, and that’s why I’ve come back in the championship to second place. But it happened to me at the beginning also.”
Sitting between Musquin and Tomac in the standings is a rider in the opposite situation — Justin Brayton.
The 2018 season has been the best of the 34-year-old Brayton’s life, yielding his first 450SX victory at Daytona International Speedway earlier this month.
It’s also been his most consistent year to date. Brayton has finished no worse than 10th over the entire 12-race stretch thus far, elevating himself into the championship discussion by avoiding the issues that have plagued his fellow competitors.
“The season has been really good, even from the beginning,” Brayton told JeffGluck.com. “We’ve been top 10 every race, top five quite a bit. Won several heat races. Practice times have been in the top five pretty much all year.”
Brayton’s been the most consistent rider in the paddock, but he hasn’t managed to rattle off race wins or podiums at the same clip as the riders around him.
The veteran has just three podiums compared to the seven and eight the other riders in the top four have mustered, and after Musquin’s Indy triumph he’s the only rider in the group without multiple victories.
So despite the career season, Brayton he knows he could do better.
“I’m really happy with everything right now, from my riding to the team, everyone involved,” he said. “It’s been a really fun year, and I’ve enjoyed it. But I also want to continue to have the success and try to win another race.”
Other riders put in strong efforts early in the year — Justin Barcia, Ken Roczen and Cole Seely among them. But they’ve all been lost to injuries in the midst of a chaotic Supercross season.
The only one who’s been able to pair success with consistency throughout the entire 12-race stint thus far has been Anderson.
The 24-year-old Anderson hasn’t been flawless, but he’s managed to avoid any significant setbacks to build a near-insurmountable advantage in the standings. His 2.75 average finish this season is easily the best in the field, and his four wins are topped only by Tomac’s five.
Anderson’s run has been impressive, elevating the New Mexico native to the top of his sport and forcing his competitors to acknowledge his improvement.
“He’s improved his consistency,” Tomac said of Anderson. “He hasn’t had that bad finish yet.
“That’s what’s winning our series right now, is guys that are consistent. Last year’s series winner won two races, maybe three. That’s just the way it’s been.”
That consistency was on full display in Indianapolis, despite the best efforts of the field.
As long as Anderson can keep it going for five more weeks, it appears nothing will stop him from marching on to his first Supercross 450SX title.