Ryan Villopoto looks set to lock up the 450SX Class Championship this weekend. (Photo: Monster Energy Kawasaki)

looks set to win his fourth consecutive 450SX Class Championship this weekend. (Photo courtesy: Monster Energy Kawasaki)

With the 2014 Monster Energy title likely getting wrapped up this weekend, it’s time to review the respective championship efforts of the top five riders this season.

Ryan Villopoto: A+

When you put yourself in a position to win a history-tying fourth-consecutive title with one race remaining, it’s safe to say you’ve had a good year. Villopoto has been a picture of consistency and believe it or not, the 2014 season has been his best throughout his four-year reign of dominance. He’s finished no worse than sixth this year, giving him by far the best finishing average of any of his previous title-winning seasons. While his win total could end up being his lowest of the last four years, the way Villopoto has tactfully approached each weekend is a sign of his maturity and incredible talent. Things have not come as easy for Villopoto this year and his dominance has not been as evident, but he’s showed incredible patience and has taken the best results he could on “off” nights. He’s essentially controlled this championship from the get go and while every one of his fellow challengers has faltered, he’s continued to get the job done. Villopoto has never been about flash, but we’ve definitely seen a new side of him this season. His tactful approach and ability to compile the best season of his career with a new kind of dominance is why he gets a perfect grade.

: A

James Stewart has had five wins so far this season. (Photo: Team Yoshimura Suzuki)

James Stewart has had five wins so far this season. (Photo courtesy: Team Yoshimura Suzuki)

We’ve all known what Stewart is capable of ever since he stormed onto the professional scene. However, he’s been known for his all-or-nothing approach throughout his career, often resulting in as many crashes as wins. We’ve seen a more patient JS7 the last couple seasons as his age increases and maturity grows, but in 2014 we’ve see an impressive resiliency in Stewart and a passion we’ve been void of since his championship-winning 2009 season. Misfortune plagued Stewart from the start of the 2014 championship, but we also saw the fire that makes him the most exciting athlete in the sport. Despite some tough outings, Stewart refused to give up on his pursuit of victory and his title aspirations. He’s feeling good and having fun again and as a result his five wins in 2014 are the most since the 2011 season. He’s also reached career landmarks by earning his 50th win in the premier class and taking over sole possession of second on the all-time wins list. It’s been great for the sport to see Stewart back in top form and his rejuvenated passion is what earned him with an A grade.

: A-

Ryan Dungey has picked off one win and nine podiums so far this season. (Photo: Red Bull KTM)

Ryan Dungey has picked off one win and nine podiums so far this season. (Photo courtesy: Red Bull KTM)

As he has been since his championship-winning 2010 season, Dungey has been solid throughout the 2014 campaign. He continued to cement his status as the new era Mr. Consistency with nine podium finishes in 15 races, grabbing one win along the way. However, we’ve also seen some uncharacteristic mistakes from Dungey at times. Dungey is not known as a rider who spends much time on the ground, which is why he is considered to be so solid. He’s very calculated in his approach and doesn’t force the issue if he doesn’t need to. Dungey rarely toes the line of the ragged edge and it almost always works in his favor, but this season he found himself in some tough spots and it ended up biting him. A DNF at Anaheim 3 and crashes at both St. Louis and Houston were low lights for Dungey, but he showed resiliency by climbing his way out of sixth in the championship earlier this season – the lowest standing of his career – and back into the championship picture. He’ll likely finish in the top 3 for the fifth straight season, ensuring an A grade, but those hiccups along the way give him a minus.

: A-

Ken Roczen picked off two wins during his rookie season. (Photo: Red Bull KTM)

Ken Roczen picked off two wins during his rookie season. (Photo courtesy: Red Bull KTM)

While the late stages of Roczen’s rookie campaign have been a little up and down, the German’s first year in the spotlight has been impressive. Considering the only riders that have outlasted Roczen are all former champions, the rookie should hold his head high. He has a pair of wins and seven podium finishes, which the majority of the field would kill to have. However, Roczen has set a high standard for himself, especially after winning the opening round and controlling the championship in the early part of the season. Roczen knows he belongs up front and expects to be there, but the grueling nature of 17 races in 18 weeks caught up to him a bit and he’s had to refocus. Training alongside Villopoto under the tutelage of Aldon Baker has its benefits, but also its challenges. Roczen had to keep pace with his training partner and did so for many weeks, but the seasoned experience of Villopoto eventually took over. Nevertheless, Roczen’s rookie season is one of the most impressive in recent memory and he’s already considered one of the division’ elite, warranting an A- grade.

: B+

Justin Barcia has bounced back nicely from his injury and looks to get a win before the season is over. (Photo: Team Honda Muscle Milk)

Justin Barcia has bounced back nicely from his injury and looks to get a win before the season is out. (Photo courtesy: Team Honda Muscle Milk)

I’m impressed with Barcia’s never-give-up season in 2014. As one of the focal points in the championship heading into the season, Barcia simply never seemed to get going and race at the level that earned him two wins as a rookie in 2013. Sure he was still exciting to watch and had the ability to captivate the crowd, but the results simply weren’t there and it left virtually everyone in the community scratching their heads. Barcia apparently took longer than expected to acclimate to the new Honda and is resulted in some growing pains and a feared “Sophomore Slump.” After being forced to miss two races with an injury, it appeared as though Barcia’s 2014 season might be a write off, but over the last month things have started to click. Barcia is back at the forefront of the division and battling for wins. He has three podium results in his last four starts and appears to have the mojo that could carry him to the top of the podium before the season is out. Barcia could have thrown in the towel following Daytona, when his return from injury was marred by an incident with Malcolm Stewart and he sat seventh in the championship. However, he stayed focused and refused to let hard luck get the best of him. He’s been rewarded ever since and looks to be a lock for fifth in the championship. Barcia’s comeback and what looks to be a continued climb forward earns a B+.

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