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A viewer’s guide to Supercross: Five things to watch in the 2022 season and Anaheim opener

With the 2022 Monster Energy Supercross season set to open Saturday night, a viewer’s guide to five key storylines when the gate drops at Angel Stadium in Anaheim, California (10 p.m. ET, CNBC):

Major change for the champion: After winning his second 450 title in three seasons last year, Cooper Webb stunned the Supercross world by changing his training program during the Pro Motocross outdoor season last summer.

The Newport, North Carolina, native has moved to 83 Compound after a highly successful run at Baker’s Factory, the Florida facility that has churned out motorbike champions under the fastidious and rigorous regimens of Aldon Baker. It’s a decision he made independent of his powerhouse Red Bull KTM Factory Racing team (which still will have a connection to Baker with Webb’s new teammate, Aaron Plessinger).

“I just felt like I needed a change,” Webb, 26, said during the Supercross preseason special that aired on NBC last month. “I’m just kind of at the point where I didn’t really know if I wanted to race much longer, to be completely honest.”

HOW TO WATCH: Details for the 2022 Supercross season opener

After a series-high eight victories and 13 podiums in 17 Supercross starts last year, Webb faded to fourth in the 2021 outdoor points standings.

While leaving Baker might be a motivator to spur Webb’s return to elite form, it comes with some risk given that Baker generally is considered one of the greatest training coaches in Supercross history.

NBC Sports pit reporter and host Daniel Blair compared the Webb-Baker pairing with the Tom Brady-Bill Belichick partnership that produced six Super Bowl titles in the NFL, and there will be the same level of scrutiny within the Supercross industry on whether Webb can excel the way Brady did after leaving the New England Patriots.

“It’s a new challenge,” Webb said. “It’s all on me. I’m holding 100 percent accountability.”

Webb is accustomed to racing with a chip on his shoulder, as NBC Sports analyst Ricky Carmichael noted last year. “Cooper Webb is a warrior, a fighter,” Carmichael said. “He will wear you down. He plays games with you and just irritates you. He’s got every facet of the game figured out, and that’s what makes him so tough.”

The other veteran contenders: Last year’s title fight also involved Ken Roczen and Eli Tomac, forming the trio with Webb that has won the past three Supercross championships. Both Roczen, 27, and Tomac, 29, are returning to battle Webb for the crown this season, though each also has made adjustments.

After leading for stretches of 2021 and notching four victories, Roczen has worked on getting healthy again after an “underlying problem in my body” caused him to fade in the second half last season. “Looking back, I can’t believe I raced and won and made it to the last few rounds for the championship,” he said.

The German rider, who has overcome many major obstacles in his career (including nearly losing his left arm after a 2017 crash), is promising “less talk, more walk” in 2022 with more consistent results and victories in the hunt for an elusive 450 championship breakthrough.

SEASON IN REVIEW: A look back at how 2021 unfolded

There also have been some major life changes for Tomac, who recently became a father for the second time. After six years with Kawasaki, the 2020 champion has switched to Star Racing Yamaha and become the elder statesman for a young group (including teammate and Pro Motocross outdoor champion Dylan Ferrandis).

“It’s just a different way of going about the system,” said Tomac, who finished third in the 2021 standings with three victories. “And that’s really what it comes down to: Who do I think is going to provide the best platform and do I think everything surrounding that team will provide me an easier way to win races?”

Barcia’s big beginnings: Though the location changed last season, the winner of Round 1 remained the same. Justin Barcia will enter Anaheim with a three-year winning streak in the season opener. Last year in the debut of the GasGas Factory Racing team, Barcia won in Houston and now returns to the familiar confines of Angel Stadium, where he triumphed in 2019-20.

Though he wouldn’t win again in Supercross last year, Barcia mostly fulfilled his postrace pledge that “I just want to be in the fight all year, not just a one-hit wonder.” He finished fourth in the points standings, added some outdoor victories later in the year and enters 2022 with confidence.

“The vision I have is to be a champion,” he said. “It’s the only reason I’m racing anymore. ... I believe in myself and know I can win. It’s like a puzzle, and all the pieces are coming together.”

New faces, new places: Along with the retirement of Zach Osborne, the offseason brought the usual parade of rider moves. Among the most notable: Plessinger has teamed with Webb at Red Bull KTM, Malcolm Stewart signed a two-year deal with Rockstar Husqvarna Factory Racing, and 2018 Supercross champion Jason Anderson took Tomac’s spot at Kawasaki.

Plessinger and Stewart also have begun training under Aldon Baker for this season.

Rebounding youth: After battling through injury and disappointment, Adam Cianciarulo and Chase Sexton still are viewed as budding 450 future champions (though Cianciarulo already is riding through a shoulder injury).

In the 250 class, rising stars Jett Lawrence and Justin Cooper will miss the opener because of injuries, but contenders Colt Nichols, Christian Craig and Jo Shimoda (who became the first Japanese rider to win a Supercross event last year) are in the field.