HAGAN JOINS AN ELITE GROUP OF FUNNY CAR DRIVERS WITH FOUR CHAMPIONSHIPS
There are many ways to win a championship. Let the record reflect: Sunday's title triumph was not how Matt Hagan wanted to secure his fourth career Funny Car crown -- but he'll gladly take it.
In a quarterfinal round at the NHRA In-N-Out Finals, all three championship contenders fell by the wayside. First, there was Bob Tasca III, who dropped a match against Cruz Pedregon, then Hagan lost to Blake Alexander in the next pair. Robert Hight was poised to reel in the championship against the driver who would eventually capture the NHRA In-N-Out Finals Wally, Chad Green.
Regardless of how he preferred to clinch, Hagan joined a small group of drivers who have won four or more NHRA Funny Car titles. John Force was the most recent to do so when he won his 16th in 1994 in a group that included Kenny Bernstein and Don Prudhomme.
"You just hate to have to see someone [lose] to win a championship," Hagan said. "That's just not my style of racing. That's not how I want to win one, but it's really about the body of work that we did all year and coming in here and being ahead in points to be able to have that opportunity where if they went out the same round, we win the championship.
"So I think you got to reflect back on your body of work that you did all season. We won six races and runnered-up a couple of times. Just can't say enough about Dickie Venables, Mike Knudsen, Alex Conway, and every single one of my guys that wrench on my car, they're all coming back next year and everybody's excited about that."
In just his second season of driving for NASCAR and motorsports icon turned drag racer and team owner Tony Stewart, Hagan delivered the championship goods.
"For Tony Stewart to get his first championship and second year out here in NHRA, it's unbelievable, man," Hagan said. "I mean, some people, they spend millions and millions for years and never get a championship, but I think it speaks volumes to the group that he's assembled and the people we put around and the leader he is as a team owner and just as a guy. And it is just unbelievable that we were able to do that this year."
Make no bones about it; Hagan knows he got away with one Sunday. As he sees it, Hight and Tasca are as good as they come. Then throw in defending champion Ron Capps, and the battle can be like a knife fight in a telephone booth.
"Those guys don't stumble, man," Hagan added with a pause.
"Robert just doesn't stumble like that," he continued. "And after that oildown with Blake, you surely know, [Hight crew chief] Jimmy's [Prock] going to go back there and soften it up and he'll just go down the racetrack. But I jumped in the car over there with Chad Green and I told him, I said, 'Flip your visor up because I'm going to kiss you on the lips.' And Chad, I definitely owe him a beer, but something about Chad, too, is that he's always been up there at the starting line every time behind me whenever we're not racing each other. I reached out to him last week and I just said, 'Hey, man, I see it and I appreciate it and you're just the type of guy, you know what I mean, really?'
"He said, 'Well, you were always nice to me when I was out here.' So I think it kind of goes a long way with that family atmosphere that we all bring to the table."
Hight, being the consummate professional, came over to Hagan after the loss and offered his congratulations.
"He went up there and congratulated me, and it's just like, what do you say to a guy?" Hagan said. "I've been there [in his shoes] and he's just like, 'Hey man, good job.' You just want to be like, 'Dude, I don't want to lose, but if it had to be to you, it'd have been OK.'
"It's just tough because I've been there. I mean, my second year out here when I had to come up here and go two rounds, and the Force had to win the race and watch that happen. We lost first round and I was so dejected and I was just a young kid, man, and I didn't know how to handle it. And I grew as a person, I grew as a driver, but I didn't want the media in my face, that's for sure. But you got to go up there and do that."
Even in the tough times of shortcomings, Hagan knows he's blessed to have taken the long road to success. Almost 20 years ago, he entered the professional categories as a Pro Modified racer before graduating into the nitro ranks with an independently campaigned Funny Car before joining Don Schumacher Racing.
"I was just glad not to be on fire every other run now, you know what I mean?" Hagan said. "I've definitely earned my stripes early on starting off and I set myself on fire a few times, but I think we got to go through that, you know what I mean? And then you go through the ranks and kind of learn your lessons and get your knocks. But now I've kind of settled in with a great group. I've been with Dickie [Venables] for 12 or 13 years now, and he's not setting me on fire a whole lot.
"I think looking back, it's just I never set out to be a drag racer."
But here he is now, killing it for the drag racing world to see.
All in all, this championship, though not in the prototypical way, has a special meaning to it.
"All greatness comes from God, and I was doing some praying up there," Hagan said. "I had never really prayed to my Mom or anything, and I lost her this year. It was one of those things where I said, 'I don't know what you're doing up there, but you and my brother, I sure could use a little help down here.'"
And, on a sunny Sunday afternoon in Pomona, CA., it sure looked like he got it.