That’s how Chase Sexton described himself as a rider as we walked the half-mile from the pits to the Nissan Stadium entrance in Nashville, Tenn., on April 28. The Honda HRC rider was buoyant with new energy, still living off the momentum he’d captured with his breakthrough victory at Atlanta Motor Speedway two weeks prior.
While it wasn’t his first win of the season, it was easily the most monumental, as it served as a turning point in the 23-year-old’s mentality. He led the race wire-to-wire, erasing the self-doubt he’d battled through the early season.
Though he strode toward the stadium a changed man on that Friday afternoon, full of pride regarding his personal progress, Sexton was still firmly rooted in reality. He was 21 points behind series leader Eli Tomac and title rival Cooper Webb was still sandwiched between the two.
For Sexton, that meant, “It’s pretty much all or bust.”
Our conversation drifted to what might happen if Tomac or Webb got injured, and what Sexton would take away from the season if he didn’t, miraculously, win the championship over the final three weeks of the season.
The Honda HRC rider was simply hoping to add a few more stats to his record and stay on his toes points-wise. As he said, “Anything can happen.”
And “anything” did happen.
Webb suffered a concussion in a heat-race crash the following day, ending his Supercross campaign. One week later, at Empower Field in Denver, Colo., Tomac was taken out of contention after rupturing his Achilles heel.
The ensuing points shakeup was drastic.
With the top two riders unable to score points at the remaining races — and relegated to the sidelines to nurse their wounds — Sexton leapt from third in the standings to the lead.
Heading into the Salt Lake City finale on May 13, the No. 23 rider was deemed championship-elect. He was 43 points ahead of the next active rider, Ken Roczen, and only needed a 25-point lead to secure the title.
Needless to say, Sexton was right. It’s not over ‘till it’s over.
However, despite putting the puzzle pieces together on a career-best season and making it to the finish line of the 17-round series healthy, a cloud of controversy descended on the Honda HRC rider following Colorado.
Grumblings quickly arose that Sexton was being “handed” the title, with fans insisting Tomac would go down in history as the “true champion” of 2023. For the second time in his career, Sexton’s consistent attendance record, mental resolve and obvious talent were lost in the fray.
The first time the Illinois native was belittled by critics was when he earned his inaugural AMA Supercross championship as a 250SX East rider in 2019. For a majority of the eight-round series, it was clear that Austin Forkner was the title favorite after he swept the opening six rounds.
Meanwhile, 18-year-old Sexton only notched a single victory.
Regardless, the Honda rider was there when it mattered. He watched as a slew of his top rivals fell out of contention late in the year due to injury — Forkner among them. As one of the last men standing, Sexton secured the 250SX East title with a 13-point lead over Justin Cooper.
But as the youngster was adorned with his first Supercross crown, the sweet moment turned bitter. Most attributed the title to Sexton simply “getting lucky,” holding their applause for his career feat as they instead commended Forkner for his dominant performance.
As similar circumstances have unfolded this season, Sexton has been subject to similar critiques.
But truthfully, the 23-year-old did not “luck” into a premier class title.
Over the last five months, Sexton has picked up six wins — only one less than Tomac, who scored seven. He was the fast qualifier at 14 of 17 rounds. He came out swinging at every race, even when he was considered out of the championship fight.
“I didn’t like not being in the conversation. I felt like I was worthy of it,” Sexton noted.
Perhaps what’s most important about his 17-round charge, is that Sexton managed to overcome his mistakes — which primarily involved minor mid-race crashes that hindered him from standing atop the podium a handful of times.
While it’s fair to say that Tomac made his mark on the year — upping his career win total to 51, placing him second on the all-time 450SX wins list — and was undeniable during the early stretch of the season, Sexton proved to be his equal in the latter stages of the Supercross campaign.
Since Atlanta, Sexton collected three of four possible victories, exhibited respect in the wake of his competitors’ misfortune and survived until the final checkered flag of the season waved in Salt Lake City.
He was the only factory rider to finish every race.
The Illinois native also capped off his Supercross campaign with a dominant performance at the finale, earning the fast-qualifier award, winning his heat race, clinching the holeshot in the main event and lighting the candles one last time.
If there was any lingering doubt about Sexton’s capabilities, he stomped the spark into the dirt on Saturday night. The 23-year-old secured his first 450SX AMA Supercross championship with his No. 23 machine in 2023 — bringing Honda its first premier class title since 2003.
“Never give up is the motto of this season,” he said during the post-race press conference in Salt Lake City.
“It’s 17 rounds for a reason.”