SONOMA, CA, MAY 12 - Monster Energy Graves Yamaha's Josh Hayes knows that he has a target on his back and wouldn't have it any other way.Before earning his first Superbike ride, the reigning AMA Superbike champion watched from the supporting classes as Ben Spies and Mat Mladin fought for supremacy, for the right to be number one, and wanted to be that guy.Hayes started to become the target during Mladin's final year, 2009, when he broke through with his first Superbike win here at Infineon Raceway, and went on to take second in the championship. When Mladin retired at the end of that season, Hayes made it his mission to be the best.Hayes returns to Infineon Raceway as the pre-race favorite. He didn't win either race at Daytona, but his Yamaha YZF-R1 was demonstrably down on power to the Rockstar Makita Suzukis of Blake Young and Tommy Hayden. Infineon has no long straightaways, which puts the Yamaha on equal footing with the rest of the machines. And having won three of the past four races, including both legs last year, on the twisty, up and down circuit in the wine country north of San Francisco, gives Hayes an edge.Still, he's taking nothing for granted and treating every race with a sense of urgency."I wouldn't have it any other way, personally," Hayes said. "I feel like some of my best performances have happened under pressure. Some of the best races I've ever had have been at the end of the season when you have to put all the cards out on the table."An example would be the 2009 season finale at New Jersey Motorsports Park. Hayes arrived in south Jersey trailing Tommy Hayden by four points. But by winning both races, along with seeing Hayden have a rare race crash in race two, Hayes went away with second overall in the championship. The Mississippi native finished the season with a four-race winning streak."So now I get to feel a little bit like that every weekend, because the cameras are kind of on me, looking to see what I'm going to do sometimes, most of the time, it seems like," Hayes said of carrying the number one plate. "So there's a lot of young talent out there trying to figure out and go through all the hard knocks that I've done for quite a few years and figure out a few things. And they're looking at me trying to figure out those things. I'm just going to keep going out there and doing my business. Like I said, I think there was a good example before me for a long time for me to try follow suit. I'm just going to try to be smart, keep my nose clean, ride hard, and see if I can do that."Winning the Superbike championship was less of an adjustment that earning his first Superbike ride. Hayes had a successful journeyman's career, but has made the most of his first factory Superbike ride, which he got when Jamie Hacking turned it down."Honestly, more than winning the Superbike championship was getting a Superbike ride I went after for a long time," he said. "I'm fortunate that Yamaha invited me into the family and gave me the opportunity. Some days, the championship itself seems a bit anticlimactic. You go, ‘Well, I was just doing my job, exactly what they hired me to do, exactly what I promised I would deliver to them, whenever.'"So I'm excited to have been given the opportunity and I'm going to do everything in my power to lead every session of everything that we do for the next several years to make sure that I guarantee that they don't have a choice but to keep me in my job for the next few years."It's a very hard time for motorcycle racing right now. I feel fortunate to have done good things at the right time and to be one of the guys that can still be here and be considered one of the stars of the sport. I'm very lucky to have that. I'm very lucky to have this young lady here," his wife, Melissa Paris, "in my corner, who sees it firsthand how difficult it is and understands the selfish part of it."The championship is fantastic. And I said last year, I've wanted this for so long. I wanted to race the fastest guys. I just wanted to say, whoever the best guys were, I brought the best race I could to those guys and I made them work really, really hard for it. So I'm just going to try to continue to live by that and see what comes."More than most racers, Hayes understands that racing is a marketing tool, that the point of winning is to move product."Basically, at the end of our day our job is to sell motorcycles," he said. "We are a marketing tool to get people to buy motorcycles. My job here is to sell Yamahas, because I've tried to prove they're the best motorcycle out there without question."Given the state of the economy, Hayes knows it's a tough sell. Motorcycles are a luxury item, he said, not a necessity. There are great bikes for commuting, and scooter sales are up, but the high profit models aren't moving as well as they need to."Hopefully, as things come around-I'm sure these things all go in cycles-I'm sure that it'll come back around and hopefully it does that during my time and I can do for Yamaha what I try to do is something to sell the best product on the planet."

 

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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.

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