MADISON, Ill. — Two-time Funny Car world champion Matt Hagan had never won the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals before breaking through this season, and hopes to repeat that trend during this weekend’s fifth annual AAA Insurance NHRA Midwest Nationals at Gateway Motorsports Park.
Hagan dropped to fifth in points following a second-round loss at the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series Countdown to the Championship opener last weekend at zMAX Dragway in Concord, N.C. He knows he needs a big performance this weekend in his 10,000-horsepower Mopar Express Lane/Rocky Boots Dodge Charger R/T to remain in the championship hunt, and replicating his Indy performance in St. Louis would do just that.
“Charlotte was tough,” said Hagan, who has three wins in 2016. “When we won the U.S. Nationals we couldn’t do anything wrong. Last weekend we couldn’t do anything right. That’s drag racing. I still don’t think Charlotte defines the way this race car runs and how good this team is. We just struggled from the word go. We’re looking forward to St. Louis. We’ve still got a very, very competitive car. We’ve never won there, so let’s unload it and win it.”
Antron Brown (Top Fuel), Del Worsham (Funny Car), Drew Skillman (Pro Stock) and Hector Arana Jr. (Pro Stock Motorcycle) were last year’s winners of the event at Gateway. The race is the second of three straight race weekends in the six-race playoffs and Hagan expects big things in St. Louis.
He sits 72 points behind leader and Don Schumacher Racing teammate Ron Capps, who has five wins this season, meaning a championship is still well within reach. In Hagan’s march to a title in 2014, the 21-time event winner came back from an 80-point deficit, and a big weekend in St. Louis would go a long way in closing the current gap.
“There’s still a lot of racing left to play out and see what happens,” Hagan said. “You just have to put yourself in the right situations and then capitalize. The biggest thing is not missing when you have a chance to capitalize. When those opportunities come you have to take advantage. A champion is someone who gets excited for these moments.”
Hagan has repeatedly shown those championship characteristics in his standout career, which has taken another step in recent years with his current team led by crew chief Dickie Venables.
To track down the likes of reigning champion Del Worsham and 16-time world champion John Force, who opened the Countdown with the win in Charlotte, Hagan knows last weekend’s qualifying struggles will have to change in St. Louis.
“When it’s crunch time we’re confident we’re going to make it happen,” Hagan said. “Everyone has confidence in Dickie and we’re going to race as hard as we can. We just have to qualify better. You have to go down in the first session on Friday and set yourself up right. That takes a lot of the pressure away and then you can just build on that. We have the skills and mentality to get it done. It’s a team effort and we just have to focus on our part and control what we can.”