So far this season there have been three winners in four rounds of the AMA Supercross Series – Ken Roczen, Ryan Villopoto, and Chad Reed. Yoshimura Suzuki’s James Stewart wants to add his name to that list. Badly. And of all the active riders, Stewart has the most wins at Angel Stadium with eight. He’s hoping for win number nine on Saturday night.
That first win of 2014 has been within Stewart’s reach on two occasions, but he’s yet to make it happen. He crashed out of the lead at Anaheim I while fighting to take the lead from Roczen with four laps to go. His next battle was fighting a nasty flu bug at the following two rounds in Phoenix and Anaheim II. But Stewart put in a valiant effort, finishing fourth and second, respectively, before repeating that second place last week in Oakland. Coming into the third and final Anaheim round, he’s 18 points behind Villopoto.
At the pre-Anaheim III press conference Stewart showed up looking fit and ready. Which begged the question: Is he back? Is he riding better than in a long time?
“Absolutely. I feel great,” Stewart said. “I think the bike’s gotten better. I’ve gotten better. I’m enjoying it more. You’re not back until you win a championship or win a race. And I haven’t done that yet. But I feel like physically I am back. Physically I’ve been stronger than maybe I ever have been in my career. I’m having more fun. I think as a team, a unit we’re very strong. I think the only step that’s left is to win that race.
“I did myself proud this off season. One I was healthy; and two to get in better shape. To work harder on the motorcycle like I’ve always have, but just take it to that next level. When I didn’t have an injury and I wasn’t worrying about being hurt or babying some injury, it made it easy to do that.”
And in a sport with 17 Supercross races, 12 outdoor rounds in the Motocross series, the Monster Energy Cup and maybe Motocross of Nations, it’s not always easy to stay healthy and focused.
“It’s hard for sure,” Stewart said. “You know you’re going to get hit with some kind of sickness or some small injury… Is how you deal with it. And unfortunately, I put myself in a bad hole at the first race. So I had to deal with a sickness and making up points at the same time. So at Phoenix and Anaheim I didn’t have the luxury of like, ‘alright I’m just going to aim for top five and get out of here.’ I didn’t feel good. Sitting around sweating, hot, not feeling great, but I had to go out there and do the best I could. I felt fourth and second wasn’t too bad for the situation. Last weekend I felt better. I rode really good, ended up second.
“I used to always get sick in the beginning part of the season… it just kind of came at the wrong time. At the time, I felt that I put myself in the hole and I needed to start making up points when I got sick. I did make up points. I am closing down. Me and Ryan [Dungey] 16, 18 points back, so we’ve been kind of sitting similar the last couple of weeks. But I have closed down on the field to manage, so I’m right there. Just got to keep building.”
At 28 years old with with two AMA Supercross Championships – 2007 and 2009 - under his belt, Stewart has a wealth of experience to tap into. How much does that experience help him in with his title chase this season?
“I think it helps a lot. Cause I’ve done it before,” Stewart said. “I know how to do it. Unfortunately, when I did that  I clicked off seven races in a row and got back in the points lead. This year is a little different. I believe in my fitness. I believe in my team. So I know if I put myself in the situation to have a chance to win… The later half of the race, later half of the season, I will be there physically to do that. I just have to clean up the starts in the main event. And I’ve got to do things like… finish those last four laps at Anaheim one. If we did those, we’d be leading the points right now. So I think when I look at it overall, I take the good. I should be leading the points, but I’m not. I’m 18 points back. But my riding has been really good.”
And while a healthy Stewart has got the faith back and is back to riding strong, there’s a long list of guys also riding well who can win – Villopoto, Roczen, Reed, Brayton, Dungey and Barcia. How does this season’s field of competition compare to seasons past for Stewart?
“I’ll tell you at the end of the year,” he said. “It’s great. It’s strong for sure. The guys have been really consistent. The guys have been fast. And we’re missing three guys - Trey [Canard], Eli [Tomac] and Davi [Milsaps]. So that’s even going to make it tougher when they come in here.
“But I still feel like I have speed. I still feel like I can get a half decent start and come up through the pack. I think those guys are running really good. And I think those guys will continue to get better as we will. It’s kind of… We’re knowing who the players are, but I don’t think we’re gonna really find out who’s going to take the reins of the Supercross Championship. Even though Ryan’s [Villopoto] won two races, I think everybody in the field believes that it’s still their championship. We’ve just got to start winning. “