CONCORD, N.C. – official series release — NHRA photo —
In the two years Matt Hagan won the Funny Car world championship, he did so by climbing the points standings with a red-hot performance in the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series Countdown to the Championship.
To do the same in 2015 and claim back-to-back world titles in the loaded Funny Car class, Hagan will only need to climb one spot in his special-edition 10,000-horsepower Freightliner/Mopar/Rocky Boots Dodge Charger R/T to do it. He starts the NHRA six-race playoffs, which begin at this weekend’s eighth annual NHRA Carolina Nationals at state-of-the-art zMAX Dragway, in second and 30 points behind teammate Jack Beckman.
It won’t be easy to chase down the red-hot Beckman, who has a super-fast race car and six wins in 2015, but Hagan will take confidence into the Countdown knowing he started the playoffs in sixth to win his first world championship and seventh a year ago.
“Charlotte has always been a pretty kind track to us and hopefully that will continue,” said Hagan, who won last year’s playoff opener and has two other career wins at zMAX Dragway, including one during the Countdown. “The Countdown is chaotic. You have six races to make it happen and you never know how it’s going to turn out. I know what it’s like to dig myself up to that No. 1 spot. You just have to depend on your guys and have trust in what you’re doing.”
Tony Schumacher (Top Fuel), Jonathan Gray (Pro Stock) and Eddie Krawiec (Pro Stock Motorcycle) were last year’s winners of the playoff opener. The event, which has kicked off the six-race Countdown to the Championship playoff since 2007, provides a great chance for a contender to jumpstart a run toward a world championship.
Hagan doesn’t need a jumpstart considering he has four wins and five final round appearances in 2015, but he would not frown upon a quick reboot after struggling heading into the Countdown to the Championship. He hasn’t advanced out of the second round in the past five races, including a forgettable first-round loss at the prestigious Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals.
It hasn’t affected him in the points standings as Hagan has never been lower than second all year, but he’s watched Beckman get incredibly hot in the process. His Don Schumacher Racing teammate passed him in the points standings in Brainerd and then won in Indy, but Hagan feels his team is bound to find another upward swing before the season is over.
“We’re in what I consider a little bit of a slump but the thing about drag racing is there are peaks and valleys,” Hagan said. “We’ve been in a slump but we’ll come back out of it. We’ll get some of these bad races out of the way and come back up to one of those peaks. It really is a different experience every time you get in the car. What reassures me is we have (crew chief) Dickie (Venables) in our corner and a bunch of guys driven to win and work hard. They are all motivated to win.”
Hagan’s successful season also continues to be one with vast changes as the team continues to push forward with the change to a six-disc clutch. Hagan has experienced the bumps in the road of the transition as of late but he remains impressed with how the team responds each time.
“It’s a huge learning curve, there’s no way around it,” Hagan said. “Obviously we want to win the championship and as many races as we can but we also have to look at the future. We’ve done a lot in a short time with this and I know it’s only going to get better. We’re learning something new all the time. It just takes time to learn. We had a little learning curve and a slump here and there, but in the Countdown it’s anybody’s ballgame. You can’t count out anybody.”
Hagan, who has 18 career wins, has certainly risen to the occasion multiple times throughout his standout career but gaining a third world championship in Funny Car might be his toughest task to date. It’s a loaded field that starts with Beckman and also includes DSR teammates Tommy Johnson Jr. and Ron Capps, who currently sit in third and sixth, respectively.
Other standouts include Del Worsham, who will start the Countdown in fourth, 16-time world champion John Force, Robert Hight, Tim Wilkerson, Cruz Pedregon and Alexis DeJoria, who will start the quest for her first championship from the No. 10 position. The stout competition makes performing well at Charlotte to kick off the Countdown to the Championship that much more important, and Hagan knows that full well. During both championship years, Hagan kicked off his Countdown running by winning at zMAX Dragway, something he would like to repeat this weekend.
“Reaction times are huge out there and that’s the biggest way I can help my team,” Hagan said. “The competition in this class is so competitive. I truly think Funny Car is the most competitive class in the NHRA right now. It blows you way and it’s mind-boggling how well everyone is running and how close it is. It’s absolutely crazy competitive out there right now. It’s big to race well right off the bat in Charlotte, but there’s pressure at every race. That’s how it is in this class.”
CREDIT: National Hot Rod Association