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Thursday, May 17, 2012
Updated: May 18, 12:27 PM ET
Dungey, Stewart and the rest

By Jason Weigandt
ESPN Action Sports

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If you want to, you can create quite a personality conflict between Ryan Dungey and James Stewart, the two men expected to tangle for this year's Lucas Oil Pro Motocross Championship, sanctioned by AMA Pro Racing.

Dungey built his career on the factory Suzuki team, left the squad at the end of last season to join his old Suzuki boss, Roger DeCoster, in a new venture at Red Bull KTM. This left Suzuki in need of star power, which they have now found in abundance via Stewart. That means the team Dungey no longer wanted to ride for will now provide his most serious threat for this year's title.

Plus, Dungey and Stewart aren't strangers to each other. Back in 2008, Stewart was dominating the sport to the tune of a perfect season, with 24 moto wins in 24 tries. Dungey, just a second year pro in the stepping-stone 250 class, headed down to Stewart's house for a summer of riding and training. Each week in the post-race press conferences, Dungey would say Stewart is a "great guy" and thank him over and over for letting him ride there. Until someone asked the inevitable question: "What happens when you moved up to the 450 class and have to race James?"

Suddenly Dungey began stuttering and stammering. "He's just a great guy," he said, going back to his stock answer. "I don't know what will happen when we have to race each other. But he's a great guy. A lot of you don't know that, but he's a great guy."

A few months later, the relationship fizzled when they actually did race, at the U.S. Open in October. There was some contact during the regular first-turn melee, and, next thing you know, things weren't the same between the two.

They never really raced much after that. In Monster Energy Supercross, they rarely seem to occupy the same part of the track at the same time, as Stewart lives the win-or-crash lifestyle, while Dungey is the consistent rider who takes few unneeded risks. Stewart signed with a Supercross-only team starting in 2009, so he never saddled up against Dungey in an outdoor race, save for a one-off appearance in 2010. But Dungey was in the midst of a dominant title run and Stewart, coming off an injury, wasn't fully prepared. Dungey won, but they weren't meeting on equal terms.

So all this history has built to where they are the clear favorites for the 2012 season, which begins Saturday at Hangtown in Sacramento, Calif. The only other riders considered capable of challenging this duo, last year's MX Champ Ryan Villopoto, 2009 Champion Chad Reed, and 2010 250-class Champion Trey Canard, are all out with injuries. Other talented riders are in the field -- such as Mike Alessi, Andrew Short, Josh Grant, Justin Brayton, Davi Millsaps and Brett Metcalfe. But, the 38 riders in the field not named Stewart and Dungey have combined for five career wins in the 450 class. Dungey has 14, and Stewart 16.

So, the facts say this one will come down to Stewart vs. Dungey. But even if you try to build a case for a personality clash and eventual trash-talking blood feud between the two, don't expect it to work out that way. Dungey, for one, seems to ride with a drama diffuser switch on the handlebars. He gets angry under the helmet on occasion, but he quickly realizes that any moment spent in anger could take the focus away from another mile on his road bike, another stride in his running shoes, or another 10th of a second on the track. Dungey operates like a machine, and there's no room for emotion in his game.

Stewart, meanwhile, has been through enough drama already. This new Yoshimura Suzuki venture represents his third team in two seasons, as he just recently broke up with Joe Gibbs Racing -- Motocross' Yamaha team to get with Suzuki. Stewart is racing strictly for pride, as his Suzuki contract doesn't even begin until 2013, so he won't draw a paycheck from the team until January. He's racing motocross in 2012 only because he wants to. Stewart has taken some guff from fans for skipping the motocross series the past few years, and this is his comeback tour. No sense ruining all the good vibes with a bunch of smack talk.

Still, if they become their only competition, they will motivate each other. Says seven-time AMA National Motocross Champion Jeff Ward, now a team owner, "That's what makes you get out of bed in the morning, knowing there's a chance the other guy might be doing more than you."

Ryan Villopoto
Ryan Villopoto can't defend his Lucas Oil AMA Pro Motocross title because of a knee injury he suffered during the Supercross season.

Although Stewart hasn't won a motocross race since 2008, his talent is undeniable, and riders at his level usually don't lose speed. It could take him a few rounds to get the details back, such as line selection, race strategy and even the stamina to go full throttle for 30 minutes and two laps, twice, on a hot, humid day. But he can still go fast, and he seems to love his new Suzuki in ways he never did his old Yamaha.

Dungey, meanwhile, is saddled with making that new KTM something the old units never were -- a championship-level mount. The Austrian marque has never even sniffed at a 450 class MX title in the United States, although they have had great success in Europe. The Dungey plan appears to be working, as he won four Supercross rounds on the new bike this year despite missing five races with a broken collarbone. No one doubts the bike and brand any longer, but, like Stewart, there will still be details to tend to through the first few rounds.

While Stewart and Dungey are working on building their programs, it could open the door for the other challengers. But the real story is expected to be Stewart versus Dungey. There's a rivalry there, any way you want to look at it.