Only two riders remain in the fight for the AMA Pro Road Racing American SuperBike title, and neither has won the title before.Team Graves Yamaha’s Josh Hayes rolls into this weekend’s season finale at Barber Motorsports Park as the favorite. Hayes and Rockstar Makita Suzuki’s Tommy Hayden have been the only legitimate contenders since early in the season. They went back and forth most of the year until the penultimate round at Virginia International Raceway. It was there that Hayes had a wake-up call. Hayden had closed to within a point of Hayes after the first race with five races to go. It was time to go to work.Hayes went on a winning streak, taking the next three races, albeit with a little bit of luck. Hayden had passed Hayes for the lead in the first race at New Jersey Motorsports Park, but a red flag soon after stopped the race and the order reverted to the previous lap. Hayes had the win and a growing points lead. By the end of the weekend his lead had grown to 22 points. Which means if he can collect 26 points on Saturday, by winning and taking the extra point for either the pole or leading the most laps, he could be celebrating the championship on Saturday night.Of his strategy, Hayes said, “I think for me it’s to do what I’ve been doing. It’s been a system that’s worked pretty well for us. I think it’s a system that’s worked well for us if you just look at the whole season’s worth of results. And, quite honestly, if I can get up there and race by myself or just with Tommy (Hayden), like some of the races we’ve had to date, that would probably be the safest and best set-up for me.”For sure I’m going to start going for it on Friday. I’m going to try to do some stuff Friday and Saturday morning to try to get pole. Another point would be good. If things went really well and I can win the race and get somebody between me and Tommy I think it can be over and done with. You don’t want to be stupid, but I’m definitely going to try to put a good race in and finish high up in there and make Sunday easy, if I can.”Easy wouldn’t describe the start of the season. At Daytona the team found they’d rested too much and everyone else had stepped up. The team worked hard to get weight off the R1 and a little more power, and, over the course of a few races, we “found ourselves getting closer and closer on speed. We were able to put together some good stuff. Daytona up until the race pretty fast, I was always in the top couple of guys, but whenever we got out there on track with anybody we found out we had a pretty decent speed deficit we had to figure out how to overcome and it was too late to do anything there. Just kind of the way the season’s worked out.”The speed improvements were a “slow and steady thing,” Hayes said, with all the pieces coming together at Road America. “And then chassis stuff, we’ve just been kind of continuing the learning process from what we’ve done before. Just kind of been working on a few things, just trying new stuff and basically using racing for testing to try to improve and make some headway with the machine.”For the first couple of races we saw some really significant improvements, we significantly improved the bike from last year. Especially early races like Barber, Road Atlanta, things like that we saw some big gains.”The result of the improvements is that the “bike’s a lot easier to ride than it was last year, that’s for sure. The speed gain was definitely a big help, but it’s definitely gotten a lot easier to ride and hang onto, also.”Hayes’ consistency is what’s gotten him to where he is. Other that the early travails at Daytona, and the first race at Auto Club Speedway, Hayes hasn’t been off the pace all year. Off the box, yes, off the pace, no. The lone blotch on his record is the penalty he incurred for the race one jump start at Road Atlanta. There was much gnashing of teeth in the aftermath of the race, but the final result was that he was given a 21.4 secs. penalty that dropped him from first to sixth.The big thing for Hayes is when he doesn’t have “a great day, we’re still doing pretty good. We’re still racing, even when we’re not have the best of the days.”Other than a third behind Hayden and fellow Yamaha rider Ben Bostrom in race one at Virginia International Raceway, Hayes has been first or second in every race since the sixth round of the year. But it was that third at VIR that jolted him awake. His lead had dwindled to one point, 333 to 332, with five races to go.”Well, I definitely think it woke me up a little bit,” Hayes admitted. “We had been kinda trudging along. I’d get a few points, he’d get a few points. And it kinda went back and forth for a few weekends like that. And then things were looking pretty good and I was pretty confident going into Virginia. And I thought, I’ll be able to stretch it out a few points here. And then Ben (Bostrom) kinda got in the mix there and kinda botched up my Saturday race. And it didn’t quite go to plan. And I was just mad. It was my own fault. I should’ve ridden more like I did on Sunday. It just kind of woke me up. Forget this, I gotta get out of here. That was kind of like a wakeup and reminder.”Then Hayes paid homage to the rider who’d forced him to raise his game last year.”It’s been a bit different with Mat (Mladin) being gone,” Hayes said. “Mat was pretty good. He was pretty self-motivated and you always had to be on your toes if you wanted to race with the guy and compete with him. I didn’t have that kind of season this year. I’m not the machine that guy was. I’m a little more human. I found myself being a little too careful, but just because of the championship stuff and everything. I think I got my head in a good place.”Yamaha helped with that. Days before the Barber showdown the company signed Hayes to a two-year deal. Now he has stability for the next two seasons, which he said was “probably the most important thing rolling into this weekend at Barber is knowing I’m not racing for a job. If the worst thing possible happens-I have a machine failure, I make a mistake and put one in the weeds, or whatever happens-I have two more years on this good bike to have another shot at it.”So if I don’t win this championship it’s not the end of the world. That means I can go there and race for it like I need. I don’t know too many other guys, I don’t know anybody else in Superbike that can say that right now. That, actually, I think plays in my favor in a big way. I get to roll in there and go for it.”
Hayes Ready for Barber
Henny Ray Abrams | Contributing Editor
Abrams is the longest-serving contributor at Cycle News. Over the course of his 35-some years of writing and shooting photos, he’s covered events from MotoGP to the Motocross World Championship - and everything in between.