The wild 2013 AMA Pro National Guard SuperBike championship fight went a long way toward being decided in this past weekend’s pivotal New Jersey Lottery Devil’s Showdown at New Jersey Motorsports Park.
Now boasting a 22-point advantage with just a single race remaining, Monster Energy Graves Yamaha’s Josh Herrin needs only to avoid disaster at the upcoming season finale at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca and he’ll at last claim his long-pursued first-career GEICO Motorcycle AMA Pro Road Racing #1 plate.
Herrin solidified his now-commanding championship position in the same manner in which he assembled it prior to his fruitful visit to New Jersey Motorsports Park — by seizing the moment and maximizing every possible opportunity.
The 23-year-old has continually built up his speed, confidence, and fitness, even as his second season in the premier class has developed. And each time his triple-champion teammate, Josh Hayes, has stumbled, Herrin has been there to take advantage to the tune of four race wins and an inside track on claiming the upset title victory.
Herrin has just one finish outside the top five all season long (a sixth at Road America), and has been on the podium in 11 of 13 races, including the last eight in succession.
It was the same story at NJMP. Herrin managed to overcome what seemed at the time to be a title-ending electrical issue at the start of Saturday’s race. The rising star was forced to come to a complete stop and restart his YZF-R1 SuperBike after his machine suffered a malfunction in second gear. Despite falling to last position, Herrin started the long charge forward, a nearly impossible task that was aided significantly by a stroke of good luck that followed the bad in the form of a red flag.
Herrin capitalized on his second chance, slicing from the third row and into the lead on the opening lap of the restart. From there he rode an exceptionally aggressive race with his title hopes on the line, picking up his fourth win of the season with a decisive pass on title rival Martin Cardenas on the race’s final corner.
The following day, Herrin further bolstered his championship position with a clutch runner-up result, again fending off Cardenas and leaving himself just one top-ten result away from the title.
Reflecting on his season to date, Herrin said, “It’s gone great — I’m not getting lucky, that’s for sure. I got lucky with Josh having some mechanicals at the beginning of the year but everything else I think has been hard earned and a smart job by me and my crew and we’ll take it. We have a twenty-something point lead going in Laguna, so that means we’ve pretty much just got to finish to wrap it up. I’ve never been this excited.”
While Herrin has been steady throughout 2013, the story of the season has been the polar opposite that’s taken place the other side of the Monster Energy Graves Yamaha garage.
After his crushing performance in 2012, Josh Hayes came into 2013 a heavy favorite to make history and become the first man to claim four consecutive AMA Pro National Guard SuperBike titles. Despite furthering his dominance in many ways, the Mississippian now finds himself with just an outside shot of attaining that goal.
Hayes’ results at NJMP were just the continuation of a bizarre season for the normally reliable Hayes, which in turn has created a bizarre title fight, such is his influence on the shape of the season.
One can make an argument that it’s entirely possible — perhaps even likely — that minus mitigating factors, Hayes could have won every single race this season, just as he’s taken every single pole position.
His title campaign got off to an inauspicious start with a pair of mechanical failures suffered while leading at Daytona International Speedway. He later took the checkered flag first by nearly five seconds at Mid-Ohio but was officially credited with second in the final results — needing a full five-second advantage after being hit with his second jump-start penalty of the season (he had earlier successfully overcame one at Barber Motorsports Park). The Mississippian finished third in a straight fight at Miller Motorsports Park, although even in that case Hayes found himself disadvantaged due to a tire gamble gone wrong. And the following day at MMP, Hayes crashed out of the lead.
Despite that odd assortment of misfortune and mistakes, Hayes came into New Jersey Motorsports Park still in control of his own destiny due to his excellence in the races in which he encountered no such drama (six wins). However, Saturday’s final may have been the last nail in the coffin.
Races are occasionally decided by inches, and less frequently, so are championships. However, usually those inches are measured at the end of a race, not the beginning.
But that may very well have been the case at NJMP as the Yamaha superstar was judged to have moved slightly in anticipation of the green light, bringing about his third jump-start infraction of the season.
Hayes, who had both his ‘A’ and ‘B’ machines suffer from electrical failures in that morning’s qualifying, then suffered a similar issue as Herrin as they powered forward at the start. But again, thanks to the red flag, Hayes was able to get back into the fight and ultimately demonstrated his on-track superiority by dicing his way through the field to claim the checkered flag first. However, with the penalty, that win was downgraded to a fourth-place finish, and Herrin’s runner-up was elevated to a win (again).
The defending champ got a small measure of revenge the following day with a blowout victory — his seventh of the season and the 40th premier class triumph of his career — but by then the damage was already done.
It’s difficult to overstate just how critical that penalty was in terms of Hayes’ title hopes. It resulted in a combined 17-point swing in the championship picture as relates to the two works Yamaha pilots. Without it, Hayes would now be in position to lock down his fourth straight SuperBike title with a pole and win at Laguna Seca — two feats he’ll be favored to accomplish. However, now he needs disaster to strike Herrin in order to have any hope of retaining his crown.
After Sunday’s win, a somber Hayes said, “I don’t know — I was proud of how I rode (on Saturday). I guess the saving grace of the day was that I rode well, worked my way through the guys, and crossed the finish line first. I’m proud of that for my team. The rest of it, the pieces will fall where they may.
“I was proud of the way I rode and proud of my team for putting a good bike back underneath me. I can’t say I’m happy — just proud.”
Yoshimura Suzuki Factory Racing’s title hopeful, Martin Cardenas, scooped up his tenth and eleventh podium finishes of the season at New Jersey Motorsports Park. However, they were a pair of thirds, costing him further ground as he now finds himself a point behind Hayes and 23 down on championship elect Herrin with just one race to go.
Saturday’s final corner clash with Herrin may have been where the Colombian’s championship chances were ultimately dashed. Had he successfully fought off Herrin’s attempt, rather than get pushed wide and lose two positions in the melee, Cardenas would have earned the race win and also taken the point for most laps led. Under that scenario, Cardenas would trail Herrin by just seven points heading into Laguna Seca and with each man having earned three wins. In other words, he would still be control of his own destiny as a pole, win, and laps leader point would put him equal with Herrin if Herrin finished second in response, and the championship tie-breaker would have fallen to Cardenas, with four wins to Herrin’s three.
And on Sunday, Cardenas tracked down Herrin from well behind but again lost out to the motivated Yamaha man on the last lap, giving away more points to his rival.
As a result, Cardenas finds himself facing pretty much the same longshot odds as Hayes — only he also needs to overcome the defending champ as well.
“This was a very long and tough race weekend,” said Cardenas. “Overall, the race was good and I’m very happy with the Yoshimura Suzuki GSX-R1000. The bike worked great this weekend and I look forward to finishing the season with a little bit better result at Laguna Seca.”
Prior to the weekend, National Guard Jordan Suzuki’s Roger Hayden was singled out as a potential spoiler and he turned out to be exactly that for Hayes and Cardenas, stealing points from both men with his Saturday runner-up. On Sunday, he finished fractions of a second off another second-place finish but took the checkered flag just off the podium in fourth.
“Saturday’s race was really good,” said Hayden. “We were a little bit quicker than on Sunday. The Jordan Suzuki GSX-R1000 was great all weekend but we had a little more speed on Saturday. The National Guard Jordan Suzuki team has been working really hard for me and I know that fourth place isn’t exactly what we want, but overall it was a good weekend and we were competitive in both races. Now I’m looking forward to Laguna, a track I’ve done well at, and finishing the season out strong.”
Jordan Suzuki’s Danny Eslick was looking to bridge the gap to the front four at NJMP and showed flashes of doing that before twice taking the checkered flag in fifth (although Saturday’s result became a sixth as, like Hayes, he was assessed a five-second penalty for jumping the start).
Sunday’s race was perhaps the most promising of the season for the Oklahoman. He swapped positions during the race’s opening half with Cardenas and Hayden, actually holding down third position at one point, before fading to fifth.
Eslick said, “On Saturday at the start of the race, I was ready to go and the starter wasn’t quite ready. So I got a five-second penalty. Then there was the red flag and that changed everything. I got the short end of the stick on the red flag, but that’s racing. Then Sunday, I got off with the lead pack and was able to make a few moves and it was good to be racing with my teammate and the guys up front. Overall, we got the Jordan Suzuki GSX-R1000 up there and rolling pretty good this weekend.”
KTM/HMC’s Chris Fillmore traded fifth and sixth place results with Eslick as he continued to reel in strong results aboard the RC8R. He was particularly impressive on Sunday, overtaking and shaking rival Geoff May (Team HERO EBR) and very nearly chasing down Eslick to earn a clean fifth.
“I was able to make a pass on (May) down a long straight and never looked back,” Fillmore said. “I pulled a little gap, and shortly after, I remember seeing the tail end of Danny Eslick ahead of me. That gave me the drive to push harder and I was able to significantly close the gap on him but just needed a few more laps in order to make the pass.”
Meanwhile, May picked up a ninth and seventh on the weekend. The Erik Buell Racing squad coaxed more power from the works EBR 1190RS machine, but that has created its own set of problems that need to be sorted.
“We’ve got more grip and more power,” May said. “Now we’ve got to find a better tire package so we make the tire last. The other guys up front aren’t having the problem. You look at their tires after the race and they look mint. We’re missing something and we’ve got to look at the data and make a fix.”
His Team Amsoil/HERO EBR teammate, Aaron Yates, took seventh on Saturday but just missed out on the top ten on Sunday after being beaten to the stripe by Motosport.com Motul Fly Racing’s David Anthony, whose two tenth-place runs were his tenth and eleventh top tens of the season.
Regarding Saturday’s race, Yates explained, “We had a good spot going. We were in a groove, running fourth, and had built up a little bit of a gap on those guys. I was trying to settle down and get into a good rhythm and go faster, but we got the red flag and had to start all over. It was a crazy restart — Hayes came flying up the inside of somebody. I thought he was close to going over on the high-side and he just about ran me off the track. Those guys were ready to go that time. The first start, I don’t know if they were sleeping when we got our AMSOIL EBR out there with a good jump.”
The Georgian said of Sunday’s 11th: “I just got hung up behind a couple of guys and wasn’t able to maintain my roll speed through the turns like I needed to and get the rpms on the engine high enough to suit the gearing. That held me up and I wasn’t able to be close enough at the end of the straightaways to make a move on anyone.”
Fillmore’s KTM/HMC Racing teammate, Taylor Knapp, also earned a pair of top tens on the weekend (eighth and ninth), while Foremost Insurance Pegram Racing’s Larry Pegram rebounded from his Saturday 12th with a Sunday eighth.
“I feel like I am improving each race,” said Knapp. “It’s good to finish consistently in the top ten now but I am really looking to earn a top five result. We only have one race left, so I am hoping to put my best performance together for that event.”
Herrin leads into the GEICO Motorcycle AMA Pro Road Racing season finale on the verge of claiming his first-career AMA Pro National Guard SuperBike title. The finale will take place on September 27-29 at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, as the series returns to Monterey, California, for a second time this season, this time to share the spotlight with the FIM Superbike World Championship.
Photography by Brian J. Nelson.