If Ryan Villopoto wants to join the elite fraternity of three-peat supercross champions, he's going to need to overcome two obstacles: a deep field of competitors, and himself.
Beginning Saturday Villopoto will attempt to become the fourth rider to win three straight supercross titles, American motorcycle racing's most prestigious and profitable prize, in the 17-event season.
The deep field of competitors includes former champions Ryan Dungey, James Stewart Jr. and Chad Reed, plus rising star Justin Barcia. There are seven AMA supercross championships among these riders; 2006 was the last season in which a championship didn't go to one of these guys.
But aside from these riders, Villopoto's biggest obstacle is himself. If he can remain healthy and injury-free, a championship will be much more within reach.
Villopoto won nine feature races in 2012, luckily clinching the title with two races to go because a knee injury at Seattle kept him out of the last two supercross events plus the entire motocross season. Villopoto became the first rider to win back-to-back in supercross since Ricky Carmichael in 2005 and 2006.
"Injuries are part of the sport, so we're used to them," Villopoto said. "It's not something that's a big shocker, injuries are standard. ACLs (the knee's anterior cruciate ligament) are pretty minor and easy to fix these days. Once I started riding, things started moving smoothly and quickly."
Villopoto has shown remarkable resilience in his career. In 2010 he was locked in a tight battle with Dungey for the championship when a broken leg, a "pretty serious" injury he said, eliminated him with four events to go.
But Villopoto, who is paid millions to ride for Kawasaki, bounced back to win six races and edged Reed by four points for the 2011 crown, his first.
2013 will be the year of the comeback from injury for all of the top contenders. Dungey won two events before missing five events in the middle of the 2012 season with a broken collarbone. He came back to win the final two features. Dungey rides for Austrian manufacturer KTM, and he delivered for them in 2012, breaking the stranglehold by Japanese manufacturers Kawasaki, Yamaha and Honda with its first supercross victories.
"To have a whole year under our belt has helped work out the bugs in there were any," Dungey said. "We're just trying to keep making the bike better and better, keep making history, and achieve the goals we've set out to do. It's definitely going to be a tough year, there's no hiding that."
James Stewart's career has been an enigma; he won championships in 2007 and 2009, and has claimed 44 total races, third on the all-time supercross list behind Jeremy McGrath's 72 and Carmichael's 48. The 27-year-old has regularly been the fastest rider on the track, but frequent crashes have caused injuries and taken him out of title contention. Stewart won two features a year ago for Joe Gibbs Racing, but injuries from seven crashes in 11 events and a general dissatisfaction with the team led to them parting company at the close of the supercross season.
The 27-year-old Stewart is riding for Yoshimura Suzuki in 2013, his third team in three years. He joined the team for the Motocross season and won the opening two events before injuring his ribs trying to avoid a photographer who ran across the track.
"I feel like this year is different because we had a lot of time to work on the bikes," Stewart said. "We had a month of testing with the Japanese [team], then I had a month of testing with the American guys and then we had a month of riding. This season has been different than last year and the year before. I'm pretty confident."
Three seasons removed from his last supercross championship, Stewart says winning a championship in 2013 would be "super important." He wants to quiet critics who acknowledge his speed, but doubt his ability to run full seasons. But Stewart plans on continuing to ride for as long as he enjoys it.
"It's like Tiger [Woods]," Stewart said. "He came in, won everything, struggled and now he's starting to come back. I feel like you have to be in the right situation and I feel I am now."
Chad Reed has 41 wins, fourth all-time, and won titles in 2004 and 2008. Unfortunately he missed most of last season with multiple fractures suffered in the seventh round.
Ricky Carmichael, who won five championships in Supercross before spending several years racing in NASCAR's Camping World Truck and Nationwide Series, remains active in supercross.
He's an equity partner in the RCH Racing Suzuki team,which has riders Josh Hill and Broc Tickle, has started a Road to supercross rider development program and is continuing to do television commentary. His pick for the championship: Villopoto.
"It's hard to go against Ryan Villopoto," Carmichael said. "He's a two-time defending champion and he's got his stuff together, no doubt about it. I have a lot of respect for the guy. I love watching him."
But Villopoto wants to leave a deeper imprint in the history book.
"Three in a row, that's what is driving me to do what I do," he said.