2017 defending champion, Monster Energy Kawasaki's Eli Tomac, will begin his title defense when the gate drops this Saturday, May 19, for round one of the 2018 AMA Outdoor National Pro Motocross Championship season in Sacramento, California, for the 50th Red Bull Hangtown Motocross Classic. It is often said that a rider can’t win a championship series in round one, but they can certainly lose it. No one knows this better than Tomac. Despite being a consistent favorite and the overall fastest rider on the track for the past few seasons, he’s only managed one 450 title.

He is coming off of a 2018 Supercross campaign that saw him win the most races, yet he finished a disappointing third in the overall standings due to crashes and an injury early in the season, putting himself in a points deficit too great to make up. The keys for Tomac will be consistency and health. He won both Moto's in last year’s opening round and set the stage for his title, so a repeat of that performance this Saturday would send notice to the other riders that he isn’t spotting them any point leads this time around, in which case, he will be hard to beat and a clear favorite to win the title once again.

Other contenders

There are several riders with the speed to challenge Tomac. Ken Roczen, the 2016 outdoor champion, certainly has the credentials.

Roczen has alternated wins at Hangtown over the past four years with Tomac. Unfortunately, he's had some serious injury setbacks and starts the outdoor season having missed most of the Supercross campaign due to a broken hand suffered in round six in San Diego. It may take him a few rounds to get back up to full speed. If he can finish near the top in the early rounds, he can put himself into position to compete for the title over the full course of the series.

Roczen is a tenacious fighter and when running his best, is capable of being the fastest rider in the sport.

Training partners Marvin Musquin and Rockstar Energy Husqvarna's Jason Anderson are also poised to make a run at the title. Anderson just wrapped up the 450 Supercross championship and would love nothing better than to add a second number one plate to his Husqvarna.

He has been fast and consistent this season, and looks to significantly improve upon his tenth place final standing in last year’s outdoor series.

Musquin may be the most consistent rider in the field, and has been improving steadily each season. He finished last season in second place and only 17 points behind Tomac in the final standings. He is also coming off of a second place finish in the 2018 Supercross series, where he was only nine points short of Anderson for that title. Musquin is fast and highly motivated to end his streak of runner-up status. You can expect him to be in the championship hunt all season long.

A fan favorite, Justin Barcia, is always a fun rider to watch. He had a decent Supercross season, finishing fifth, and he can certainly be a factor outdoors.

However, the possible dark horse in the championship hunt this season is none other than El Chupacabra himself, Blake Baggett. He finished fourth in Supercross, and finished third last season outdoors. He was the point leader early last season and gave Tomac a serious run for several weeks before setbacks in later races dropped him in the standings. He is determined to return to the front of the pack this year, and past seasons have shown that he has the speed to be the fastest guy on the track outdoors when he’s at the top of his game.

Injury status

Unfortunately, injuries are a constant factor in Motocross, and this year’s opening round will be missing several fan favorites when the bikes line up on the starting grid:

Cooper Webb, who has been a very fast contender, is week to week and is expected to miss at least four weeks while recovering from a fractured tibia and fibula suffered in April.

Josh Grant, who was third last year in Hangtown, is also recovering from a fracture and is not ready to return (no timetable has been set on a return date).

Justin Bogle and Cole Seely are also out with fractures.

Dean Wilson, who finished fourth in Hangtown last season and fourth in the final outdoor standings, tore his ACL just last week and will likely miss the entire season.

Last year's fifth place finisher, Broc Tickle, is currently under suspension for testing positive for a banned substance, which he is adamantly fighting, but this leaves him out of Saturday’s lineup, and leaves him with an uncertain future -- having just been dropped by team KTM.

Other riders to watch

As he did during this year’s Supercross season, Christian Craig will be called up by GEICO Honda as a replacement for Seely.

Craig is an experienced veteran and has performed very well on the 450. He frequently got off the line fast for very good starts, a huge key in Motocross success, and he consistently ran with or near the leaders. Expect him to continue this type of performance and compete consistently in the top ten.

Another rider who has slipped under the radar, but who has been a consistent competitor in both Supercross and Motocross, is Weston Peick. Peick finished the 2017 outdoor season eighth in points, though the four riders immediately ahead of him last season are all out with injuries this season, leaving a rather wide door open for him to significantly improve upon last year’s result. He is also coming off of a sixth place final standing in Supercross.

Where to watch

Moto 1 is from 2-4 PM ET. It is available to stream online via the NBC Sports Gold Pass, or you can catch it on MAVTV with your local cable/satellite provider. Moto 2 can also be streamed via NBC’s service, or you can also watch it on NBCSN from 8:30-10:30 PM ET through your television provider. Televised times may change, so be sure to check the schedule on the day of the race.