NHRA FUNNY CAR CHAMPIONSHIP PROMISES TO BE AN UNMANUFACTURED SLUGFEST
A point-and-a-half format, one race remaining in what has been unorthodox, two of three competitors facing an uncertain future make for what could be a championship battle race fans have clamored for since what many consider the good old days. A fourth driver remains a longshot, but while Bob Glidden proved longshots can win in 1980, he didn't have to battle with three other drivers, just one.
Sunday's final eliminations at the NHRA season finale at Las Vegas will pit teammates Matt Hagan, Tommy Johnson Jr., and Jack Beckman in a slugfest where 43 points separate the trio. Ron Capps is mathematically alive at 163 points, while only 183 remain available.
In the accelerated points structure, the 43 points now amount to a just over a round win. A driver who can sweep qualifying can earn 18 points. The three points front runners have all qualified No. 1 this season, Hagan with five, Johnson with three, and Beckman with one.
Put simply, Hagan accepts he stands in the best position headed into this weekend's final event. If the 2020 NHRA Camping World Funny Car championship were a bar-fight, he understands he'll be the competition's first target. He's been on both ends of the spectrum – the predator and the prey.
"We've been out here racing since 2014, and I've got a real shot at winning this thing, and we need to go on and get it done," Hagan said. "The thing about it is that I've been on both sides of it. When you look at 2010 with Tasca, and Force, and those guys, and I just had to show up to Pomona and win first round, and I didn't. You go in here knowing they've got to win two more rounds than you, and with four rounds to go, and you think I'd be sitting all right here, but you're not.
"That's the whole thing about Funny Car is that it ain't over till it's over. We've battled it out a few times like this, and I've been on the other side where we've been leading like this, and I've been on the other side where I've been chasing. You just don't know, and you don't ever assume anything with Funny Car. You just be humble, you work hard, and you go out there and get it done."
"Every one of those cars are running good, but I think you got to give us some credit too, man. I can sit here and tell you how great they are, but I think I owe Dickie Venables. We made up a pile of points coming in when we first started this thing off, on Beckman, and everybody else, and we just kept extending those points, and making that lead, and finally got the lead, and putting more points on, and that's just what we've got to keep doing.
"They've won three races apiece, and we've only won two, but the points say we've done better at the majority of the races than they have, so trophies are nice, but at the end of the day, everybody remembers that one big trophy, and that's what we're after."
The 2020 championship battle has been one of peaks and valleys, with the lead changing hands five times. Beckman led the war early, losing it after a first-round loss to Hagan at the NHRA Indy Nationals when Hagan only qualified 15th and drew Beckman in the first round. Johnson, who lost in the second round, ascended to the point lead, followed by Beckman and Hagan. Beckman regained the championship lead with an NHRA U.S. Nationals win but relinquished the perch following St. Louis with a semi-final loss to Johnson. Hagan took over the top spot despite losing to Johnson in the final round.
Hagan's worst finish since racing resumed in July has been one quarter-final finish. Both Johnson and Beckman have a first-round loss apiece, with at least two quarter-final finishes.
For Johnson, who headed into last weekend's pandemic-delayed NHRA Springnationals in third and for all intent and purposes out of contention with an 85 point deficit, suddenly with a Houston victory was back in the thick of the battle.
"There's definitely been times it felt like two steps forward and three steps back," Johnson admitted. "We were leading the points early in the season, and then we went through a couple of races where we didn't do well and then fell back. Then we got there again in St. Louis. We won that and put ourselves right back in it, and went through a little slump, got back out of it, and then put ourselves back in it. It's been a fight, but the good thing is the guys never quit. We didn't go away.
Johnson believes it has been his ability to roll with the punches of life enabled him to re-engage every time it appeared he was out of the mix.
"I actually went to Houston feeling like we were out of it and just wanted to win the race," Johnson said. "I almost forgot about the points and was concentrating on winning the race. So far, it hasn't bothered me at all. It's just relaxed me at times where you think, well, okay, well, that's over, so let's just go race.
"I guess I need to maintain that attitude for Vegas. I actually had that attitude because we're going to need a little help along the way. We can't just go win the thing. We have to hope that they go out earlier than we do and we can go to the final and win the thing. It's the same mindset this weekend. Just go do your job, and we'll let the cards fall where they may."
The one common denominator for Johnson and Beckman, aside from gunning for Hagan, is understanding the two face an uncertain future with their respective team programs ending after Las Vegas. This weekend's race might provide them with one last chance to win a championship.
"I don't think you can think like that," Beckman said. "I think if you do, probably not going to drive your best. I'm not saying that hasn't crossed my mind, but I think you got to do your best to compartmentalize that. Every race win's important. When you get down to the wire for the championships, they're more important. But I think sometimes telling yourself that they're more important might lead to mistakes there. But trust me, I'm fully aware of this might be the last time I sit in a nitro Funny Car, so it's a big deal."
"You don't know when your last pass will be; I don't know what the future holds.," Johnson added. "If you're going to win one, I might as well do it now because I don't know how many more opportunities I'll have. You hate to get close and have an opportunity to get it and then never have another chance to do it. I would say right now is a chance that I need to take and do everything we can because I don't know when the next one will come or if there ever be another one."
In a sense, Johnson and Beckman might just become the sentimental favorites to win this weekend, making Hagan the odd-man-out aside from his fan-following.
"I think we're probably the two sentimental favorites because of Terry and the Chandler family and Doug, what they've done for the sport," Johnson admitted. "I think that they certainly have deserved a championship for all they've done for the sport of drag racing and the people not even in drag racing. I'm sure that we're a little bit of a sentimental favorite, but everybody has their fan base. I'm sure [Hagan's] people are rooting for him, and we are rooting for ours. I think it'd be very touching, very sentimental for what all Terry and Doug have done."
While Hagan can understand and appreciate the sentimentality towards the Chandler-inspired teams, he's quick to point out the future is never really set in stone for anyone.
"I don't know if I'm going to have a job every year," Hagan admitted. "We all take this drag racing as a very serious sport, but it's also a very challenging sport to be in, and over the last 13 years, I've seen a lot of people come, and a lot of people go. I think that we have some things moving forward, and it looks good, and nothing's signed, but it could be all of our last years, so I don't feel sorry for anybody whether it's their last year or not.
"We're all out here fighting every year to stay out here, and putting deals together, and I'm working behind the scenes every day to keep things alive, and moving forward, so as much as they say it could be their last year, it could be my last year, just because you never know with COVID, and sponsors, and everything else.
"That's not what we're hearing, but at the end of the day, we don't have anything in writing, and I think it's one of those things where you have to be realistic with what you're doing, so as much as they say it could be over for them, it could be over for [Ron] Capps, it could be over for me, it could be over for all of us.
"We all have to go here and work hard, and make sure that we stay out here, and put deals together, and make B2B business, and all the behind the scenes stuff that a lot of the fans don't even know about, that we're all working out here every day to make sure that we stay out here."
Hagan said his sentimental factor has not been publicized as much as the others. His younger brother, Kyle, passed away unexpectedly in January 2016. He's been trying to win a championship for him ever since.
"For me, this championship's about my brother and digging deep, and since he's passed, we've been there a couple of times, and we just haven't sealed the deal," Hagan revealed. "There's things that are riding on my shoulders, that I need to hold some stuff down for me personally, and it's one of those things where that's in my mind, and what my personal issues and stuff like that are, and feeling like he's riding with me, and different things like that.
"That's not even something I was really even going to talk about. It's just some personal stuff for me. It's just one of those deals where I just don't feel sorry for nobody, man. We're all out here. Everybody's had the opportunity to win what they win and be out here as long as they can be. For me, it's like you're out here as long as you work hard and put stuff together, and behind the scenes, and I know that sounds crude and rude, but at the end of the day, there's no guarantees with anything in drag racing, so it could be all of our last year. Heck, COVID ruins everything for everybody, so we sure hope that's not the case.
"I just look at it like it's out there for us to win, and them to win, and it's going to come down to just who works harder.
Hagan understands while his teammates are resourceful in their approach to beating him, he's very aware of how they are natural-born survivors.
"I get it. It could be their last year, but I've seen guys it's their last year, they lose a sponsor, and they come back the next year," Hagan said. "You know what I mean? Or they find something midway through the season. If you think that Jack Beckman, or Tommy Johnson, is just going to throw their hands up and give up and never try to drive a car again, I think that you're foolish."
Resourceful or not, the struggle to deal with the pressure is real for Beckman and Johnson.
"You watch the World Series. A pitcher can't win the game for a team," Beckman said. "A pitcher's job is to keep them in the game so the offense can win the game. But at the end of the day, the pitcher is the choreographer. The pitcher is the guy that all the weight is on every time they wind up and throw the pitch.
"Now in drag racing, that kind of switches. When we get back to the pits, that weight goes back to the crew chiefs and the crew. When we get up to the starting line, that weight shifts to the crew chiefs. But then as soon as that car fires, it shifts into the driver's hands, and it's pretty spectacular. I don't know how well human beings have evolved to handle and deal with stressful situations.
"I wish there was a switch you can flip to mute it or at least minimize it. But at the end of the day, this is where having an athlete's mind ... You don't have to be an athlete, but having an athlete's mind, that ability to block out distractions and focus on the task at hand? That's where it comes in big."
"Having lots of pressure doesn't really bother me," Johnson said. "I guess I've taken the approach of ignoring it, and maybe it'll go away. Hopefully, something will come about. I've also had the mindset that we need to really perform and show somebody that we're capable of doing this. I think we're doing that, both of us are.
"If something's going to come about and they're looking for a quality team, I think we've both proven that these two teams are the best quality out there and are championship contenders. You have to do everything you can to help yourself and continue.
"It isn't like this isn't the first time I've ever had this opportunity, so maybe experience is playing some into it as well, knowing that the future is not too bright and try to do your best to prove that you need to be out there."
The one aspect all three drivers agree on is regardless of who wins the championship on Sunday, if there's going to be an asterisk beside the winner's name, it should be because they win the purest championship since the Countdown was implemented in 2007.
"When they announced no Countdown, I don't think you could get a much more intense down to the wire points battle here going into the last race," Johnson said. "That was what the Countdown was supposed to do. This [battle] is without Countdown, and it's come right down to it as well. Yeah, I was hoping for a runaway. We'd be out on the lead, but that's not what we got."
"It's funny with no Countdown. We're getting arguably the most exciting Funny Car finale that we've had in 10 plus years," Beckman added.
"It's mentally stressful, so I think if anything, we've had to go out here and earn more of a championship versus this knowing what your season is, and strolling through it," Hagan explained. "This championship, whether I win it, or Jack wins it, or Tommy wins it, or Capps wins it, or whatever, I think it means a lot more than just a regular one, because we've had to go through so much, and we've had to put our teams through so much, and our sponsors through so much, and then our sponsors taking the chance to be out here, and staying safe.
"There are just so many risks that everybody's had to take to be here to put on a great show for these fans and to be out here racing and keeping sponsors happy. I think we've had to work harder this year than we ever have had in the past 13 years I've been driving a race car, so I think this championship comes down. Whoever wins it is going to. For me, I feel like you've had to really work for it and earn it."
As Hagan sees it, the 2020 season has forced all to bring their best game to the arena every time. And this was mainly because of the uncertainty at the restart of the season in July. At any given time, the season was subject to end as rumors swirled as late as three weeks ago the Houston race might be the last one.
"You just didn't know what was going on," Hagan said. "We were just winging it all season long. We are glad to be racing, and not even really thinking about points, and then all of a sudden you're in this championship hunt, and you're like, 'Oh, man."
"Every qualifier, and every round, and everything, it all adds up. Obviously, we haven't had a whole lot of races. It's just one of those things where it doesn't feel like it's the end of the season. It feels like we've still got a lot more racing to do, but that's just me being greedy, wanting to race more."
Hagan believes the bottom line is he who is the greediest when it comes to accumulating points will be the one hoisting the trophy.
"The key is obviously the first qualifier," Hagan said. "That's been the key to this whole deal is just making sure you're aggressive, and you go down the racetrack. It's a fine line for these crew chiefs have to throw-down to get in the show. We've been on the backside already. I know Capps has, and Beckman has, and TJ. You go down and mess up your first run, and then your second one, you're backing everything up just to try to get in when there's 17, 18 cars, and then you're just setting yourself up for Sunday.
"It could be you draw a tough car in the first round. We've been there, so the key really to this whole thing is that first run, and getting that first run underneath your belt, but also qualifying while being aggressive enough to where your top half, but still not too aggressive where you smoke the tires because then you're backpedaling to get in."
Johnson said he would like to think the late Terry Chandler would be proud of her "boys."
"I think she would tell us, 'Go have fun," Johnson said. "She was always so proud of the teams. No matter whether we won or lost, Terry was thrilled. I think she would want us to go enjoy it. She was all about the people at the races, and she loved people and helping people. I think that's what she would want. She wanted everybody to enjoy it and have a great time and remember it and basically live the moment. Don't get too wrapped up in it. Go out and do your best, but also enjoy it at the same time."
Or, as Beckman sees it, Chandler had a vision of the bigger picture which transcended winning races or championships.
"Oh, I can hear her voice right now," Beckman said. "I am so proud of all my boys. Wherever we finish, don't forget the lives we've changed along the way."
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