At the start of the season, Colt Nichols and Christian Craig would seem to be unlikely Supercross 250 championship contenders.
Colt Nichols missed the first part of the 2020 Supercross season and finished only 11th in the points; Christian Craig rode seven races last year, finished last in two of those events and landed 15th. As a result, they were widely underrated when the season began. It did not take long for them to change those expectations.
After three rounds in 2021, the Star Racing Yamaha teammates head to Indianapolis on Jan. 30 for another three-race stand. Both riders will have red plates designating them as points leaders affixed to their bikes.
Nichols and Craig have struggled at stages of their careers. But they both also have solid championship efforts from which they can craw.
Nichols finished third in the 2019 Supercross West campaign behind Dylan Ferrandis and Adam Cianciarulo – both currently compete in the 450 class.
One has to scroll down a little further to find Craig’s best season. He finished third in 2016 behind the 450 Round 3 winner Cooper Webb and Joey Savatgy.
It may took a race or two for Nichols and Craig to come to terms with their position at the top of the leaderboard, but odds are good they will remain in contention through the Indianapolis residency.
“It’s awesome,” Craig said after finishing second in Round 3 in Houston. “This is kind of where I expect to be. I had a couple of years that were horrendous, filled with injury and terrible results. This is where I should have been a long time ago and my real speed is coming out now.”
“Last year I only raced three or four races all season, so I kind of knew I would be forgotten about,” said Round 3’s race winner Nichols. “It didn’t really bother me. I understood why people weren’t putting me at the top of the fantasy picks, but I believe in my ability and know what I can do if I can come in and get a good start.”
So far in 2021 Nichols and Craig have mirrored one another with a sweep of the podium and identical finishes of first, second and third. Craig took the early lead with his Round 1 win. Nichols got progressively stronger with a third in Round 1, a runner-up finish in Round 2 and all of that momentum culminated in Saturday night’s win.
Emotions ran high for Craig on the night of his first win since 2016. After the race, he paused, put his head on his arms and then looked skyward in relief.
“I’ve never been in this position before,” Craig said Saturday night. “All I’ve go to do is take it race by race and put myself out front. It felt like a normal day (of practice) with (Nichols) and I just pushing each other. He was able to get the better of me tonight. I’ll take the second-place and move on to Indy.
“After the first round I felt a little pressure going into Tuesday, but we cleared that up and I went through it and now it’s just another day. The red plate means nothing. I’m here for the long haul . We’ve got a lot of races left. It’s cool to be in this position – don’t get me wrong, I’m really happy. I feel like I’ve got a good three round start so we just have to keep building on this.”
Their stature as contenders will be aided somewhat by graduations and injuries. The winner of the last two 250 East championships, Chase Sexton moved up to 450s this year. Two-time defending 250 West champion Ferrandis also advanced.
And then there was a matter of a couple of injuries before the Houston finale Saturday night. RJ Hampshire went down in practice and missed the race with a wrist injury. He fell to 11th in the standings, 38 points behind the leader.
Austin Forkner crashed hard and ended his day in the hospital as doctors attended to his arm and collarbone. Widely expected to be the top challenger this year, he is now 30 points out of the lead in eighth. It is not an insurmountable deficit, but it will take time to overcome the loss of a full race.
Filling the spots are a couple of highly touted rookies who garnered more preseason coverage than either Nichols or Craig.
Third in the standings, Jett Lawrence is the only rider other than the Star Yamaha teammates who has scored a win. His came in Round 2.
“I knew I wasn’t going to have as much hype as a lot of these guys – for some reason I just don’t,” Nichols said after finishing second in Round 2. “I’m fine with that. I just want to go out and perform as well as I can.”
Max Vohland had a solid run going in the third Houston race before he tipped over and finished sixth.
Jo Shimoda and Michael Mosiman are also in sight of the leaders, but before they can become part of the conversation they will have to win.
“A win always gives you a little bit of a boost,” Nichols said after earning his first victory in two years. “Proves you actually can win. It’s a good feeling. But I was happy where I was: three, two in the first two races. I felt like I was riding well, just didn’t put myself in a great position at the start of the first few races.”
Momentum is a powerful force in Supercross. And for now it rests with one team.
“We’ll be sharing the red plate, which is kind of cool for the team going into Indy,” Nichols concluded.