Supercross: Dungey stuns, and runs with Stewart

They were on the their feet for an underdog. They were witness to a stunning upset in the making. They cheered as the rookie, Ryan Dungey took the race to four-time champion James Stewart at the season-opening event of the 2009 Monster Energy Supercross Series.

Dungey took the lead in the first corner and held it.

This wasn’t Chad Reed holding off Stewart, who almost seemed to settle into second place. It was a rider making only his fifth career start in the class. Seven laps into the 20-lap race, Dungey led by seven-tenths of a second. The next lap, it was nine-tenths. The next lap, 1.5.

People don’t do that to Stewart. But Dungey roomed and trained with Stewart for awhile. After they split, Dungey started training with Ricky Carmichael, aka the Greatest Of All Time. And it seemed that Dungey had channeled Carmichael.

“It was amazing,” said Dungey, who turned 20 last month, “got off to a great start. Had him going there.”

Reed, the 2008 champion, had already fallen out of the race — on the first lap, no less — when his Suzuki failed after making contact with another rider. He is Stewart’s main rival, but Stewart wasn’t thinking about Reed because he only had Dungey in front of him as the laps continued to fly by.

Dungey’s lead was 2.4 seconds on Lap 10, then 2.6, then 2.7 seconds.

“Man, he was running good,” said Stewart, the wunderkid the early part of this century.

Dungey’s Rockstar/Makita Suzuki continued to perform, and so did he. The crowd cheered the star in the making as he went past, stretching the lead more and more, 4.3 seconds by Lap 13.

Straight up, more than halfway into the grueling race, and it was Dungey who looked more like Stewart.

Earlier this week, at the season-opening media luncheon, Dungey could barely draw a question from the assembled scribes. Now, he was the focus of 43,841 who clearly were hitched to his leathers.

“I had a good race,” Dungey said, “but those little bobbles cost me. That’s why we’re here. We’re learning.”

Oh, those bobbles. Stewart amped up the pressure, and Dungey missed a triple and the lead was 3 seconds, then 2.1, and then 1.6. Every bobble was magnified because the sport’s best rider was bearing down.

“The last seven laps I started pushing it trying to get into a rhythm,” Stewart said, “and I was able to catch him.”

Dungey’s lead was down to three-tenths of a second after 17 laps, and the fans were on their feet. Not just the ones who stood as the riders passed by, but those in every reach of Anaheim Stadium. This was a race, one of the best they had seen, between The Man and boy.

And then it happened. In that first turn where the battle began, Stewart squeezed inside Dungey to take the lead. And then it was Stewart who was out front as the final three laps clicked off, 1.8 seconds on lap 18, and 1.1 on Lap 19.

But Dungey wasn’t done. He closed on Stewart. No one closes on Stewart, and that’s what was so amazing to watch on this special night. Dungey, from Belle Plaine, Minn., pulled even to Stewart, getting his front wheel to Stewart’s rear wheel on a hairpin turn.  Stewart himself could not have seen this coming, could not have bargained for this when the gate dropped.

But just as Dungey was about to make a pass into history, he missed a shift. Two turns from the finish.

Less than 100 yards of dirt later, Stewart won the race by 3.4 seconds. Dungey, though, won the hearts of fans.

“We battled to the end, and that’s what racing is about,” Stewart said after his 37th career victory.

That’s when racing is at its best, when it’s battled to the end. With Stewart and Reed so dominant, too often it doesn’t go to the end.

“There’s always another race,” Dungey said.

And let’s all be thankful for that.

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