The NHRA’s Countdown to the Championship points championship was starting to level off in a straightforward direction when two good ‘ol country boys left almost everyone scratching their heads following the Midwest Nationals outside of St. Louis, the third stop in the six-race playoff series. 

Matt Hagan (Funny Car) and Clay Millican (Top Fuel) secured victories at World Wide Technology Raceway Park and, in doing so, helped them to climb the ladder of championship points.

Joining them in the winner’s circle was Greg Anderson (Pro Stock) and Gaige Herrera (Pro Stock Motorcycle).

Hagan’s win marked the fifth for the Tony Stewart Racing season, which could easily be described as feast or famine. His victory over defending NHRA Funny Car champion Ron Capps marked his 48th career victory. 

Hagan definitely didn’t back into the title as he stopped past national event winner Alexis DeJoria, then 16-time champion John Force, and points leader Bob Tasca III before reaching the finals against Capps. By defeating Capps, Hagan significantly closed the gap on current points leader Bob Tasca III, trailing by only 13 points with three races remaining in the season.

“We knew we had to win this race to be in the hunt for this thing,” Hagan said. “It feels like it’s meant to be, and I’m just enjoying the ride. [The team] sat down and looked across from each other, and it’s one of those things where you go, I’m going to dig for you, you dig for me, let’s make this happen. I think that’s what makes it happen: having a core group of guys you want to work hard for. You want to show up for them, and today, they all showed up for me, and I felt like I showed up for them.

“The pressure is huge. I was telling (crew chief) Dickie Venables, damn, this is a lot of pressure, but that’s what you want. That’s what we’re here for. If we didn’t have the pressure, we didn’t have a shot. The pressure was huge – you just have to find a way to capitalize on it.”

For his part, Capps reached his seventh final round appearance of the season and the 147th in his career. Although he faced disappointment in the final against Hagan, Capps remains a contender for the championship, trailing Tasca by only 33 points in fourth place.

For the record, Top Fuel drag racing and internet superstar Millican now holds the Illinois State Top Fuel championship, having swept both NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series there. He won the Route 66 Nationals back in May, and while the track is listed in St. Louis, the land it is on is officially in Madison, Illinois.

Millican scored his third win of the season behind the wheel of the Parts Plus/Comp Cams-sponsored dragster for Rick Ware Racing, running a 3.758 seconds elapsed time at 331.94 mph to beat Leah Pruett in the championship round. 

“Man, what a day. This is huge,” Millican said. “He gave us a hot weekend, and man, (crew chief) Jim O (Oberhofer) just showed again that when it’s hot out, look out. We got away with a couple, but we outperformed the cars we raced, and I am so proud. I mean, this was huge. Jim O will quickly tell you, give me a track above 90 degrees and look out. Needless to say, with this perspiration on my face here, it’s above 95 degrees out there, and it was all day. I am already talking to the man upstairs; bring on the heat in Dallas, baby. 

“Our goal is obviously top 10, as far as we can possibly get. It’s way too big a gap to think about chasing down No. 1, but three wins for this Parts Plus team is huge.” 

Pruett’s final was her fourth of the season and the 23rd in her career. She had a banner day, stopping Shawn Langdon, points leader Doug Kalitta, and Steve Torrence. She trails Kalitta by 47 points. Torrence is 51 points back of Kalitta, and Justin Ashley is 77 points behind.

Don't look now, but Pro Stock's winningest driver is surging at the right time. Anderson made it back-to-back as he stopped third-gen drag racer Aaron Stanfield in the Pro Stock final round. He ran 6.552 seconds at 209.92 mph in his Chevrolet Camaro to beat Aaron Stanfield in the finals. 

With back-to-back round wins over Enders, Anderson has now pulled into second in the championship points standings, just 26 points out of the lead. His latest final round came at the expense of Jerry Tucker, Deric Kramer, and Enders.

“I'm back in the game. I've legitimately got a shot at this championship with three races to go, and that's all you can ask,” Anderson said. “I went to the first race at Reading and lost in the first round, and I've said it a million times – you can't win the championship at the first race of the playoffs, but you can lose it. I was knocking on the door and knocking myself out of it. if I didn't have a big recovery at the next race, I was out of it. I'm back in the fight, and I have a great hot rod, but there are so many great cars so many great drivers in this class right now. It's incredible. These next three races are going to be a bare-knuckled brawl.

“From the first round on, it's like racing the final, every week. Right now, if you don't do a perfect job round one you go home. There’s no telling what's going to happen from here on out. I feel fantastic about the way things have gone these past two weeks. With the job my guys have done on my racecar and even the job I've been able to do behind the wheel, it feels great.”

Then there's Herrara, the sophomore Pro Stock Motorcycle racer, who is unstoppable, even from inside his own camp. Once again, Herrera made a mockery of final eliminations, eventually stopping teammate Eddie Krawiec in the final round. He ran a 6.728 seconds at 201.79 mph, for the win. 

Herrera now leads the defending champion Matt Smith by 99 points at the halfway point in the championship chase. He tied the single-season record for qualifying No. 1 in Pro Stock Motorcycle history with his 11th top spot of the year.

“Hopefully, I still have a job after knocking Ed off, but that final round was good for our whole team” Herrera said. “All day, I had a very consistent motorcycle, and the first round was probably the most nervous round for me. Racing Joey he's always a tough competitor, so I knew he was going to be on it. All day has been really good. 

“I can't give enough credit to the whole Vance & Hines Mission Suzuki team. I still can't believe I got that phone call almost a year ago now to race for them. It’s been incredible, and I'm proud to be part of it.”

Krawiec reached the final round for the second time this season and the 93rd in his career, thanks to round wins against Ryan Oehler, Jianna Evaristo and Smith

The NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series returns to action Oct. 12-15 with the 38th annual Texas NHRA FallNationals at the Texas Motorplex in Dallas.