In front of an energized crowd at Angel Stadium in Anaheim, Calif., the 2013 Monster Energy AMA Supercross season got underway. And it proved to be a night of surprises as Davi Millsaps jump-started his season, and his career, with a hard-fought victory.
There was immediate drama when during the pre-race broadcast on SPEED, reporter Erin Bates broke the news that star rider James Stewart had tweaked his right knee during a preliminary practice session. The former Supercross champion was beginning the season with a new team after having left Joe Gibbs Racing last year to sign with the Yoshimura Suzuki effort.
Justin Barcia made the case that he would be a force in his rookie season on the 450cc bikes when he held off a hard-charging Ryan Villopoto to win the first heat race of the evening as the two delivered a heart-pounding contest right to the finish line.
Perennial contenders Ryan Dungey and Chad Reed finished sixth and seventh, respectively, in that initial qualifier.
Millsaps beat out Trey Canard for the win in the second heat. Stewart had led early in the race but fell back as he appeared to be laboring, or at least riding cautiously, due to his earlier injury.
Later, team manager Mike Webb of Yoshimura Suzuki told SPEED that Stewart was in severe pain after the heat and was questionable for the main event. Eventually, though, Stewart did start the main event.
When the gate finally dropped for the start of the 450cc main event it was Millsaps on the Rockstar Energy Suzuki who surged to the initial lead with Canard on the factory-supported Muscle Milk Honda trailing close behind.
These two seemed unlikely riders to be out front as Millsaps was on a so-called privateer bike, while Canard was competing in his first race after suffering a devastating back injury one year ago.
Millsaps had landed with this team, which does not receive heavy amounts of factory support, after having ridden as a teammate to Stewart in 2012 at JGR. He finished second in the Supercross standings a year ago.
As the 20-lap race reached its middle stages, Millsaps continued to lead with Canard stalking close behind. Meanwhile, Barcia and Dungey trailed just off the leader's pace and seemed poised to seize any opportunity that might present itself.
Heavy pre-race favorites Villopoto and Stewart languished mid-pack throughout the race's early stages until Villopoto took a hard fall while challenging Stewart for ninth place on Lap 9. Stewart would go on to finish eighth with Villopoto riding home 16th.
The race for the lead intensified even further with five laps remaining as the top four riders battled within three seconds of each other. But within a two-lap span, the contenders were whittled down by half as Dungey took a brief spill on Lap 16 and Barcia followed suit one circuit later.
Canard wrested the top spot away from Millsaps with three laps remaining and appeared to be pulling away. However, Millsaps fought back and had closed onto Canard's rear wheel as the leaders took the white flag.
Finally, with just yards remaining in the feature event, Millsaps made the move around Canard and held on by less than a second as the two riders soared over the finishing jump.
It was the first Supercross victory for the 24-year-old Millsaps since he came home the winner in San Diego back in 2010.
"Working hard in the offseason, it's been a great offseason," said an emotional Millsaps when asked in his victory interview about the key to his success. "I've pushed and I've pushed and pushed, and finally the hard work has paid off."
The AMA Supercross Series will hold its second event of 2013 next week in Phoenix.