HAGAN NOW ONE WIN SHY OF 50 FOR CAREER, TAKES OVER FUNNY CAR POINTS LEAD WITH DALLAS VICTORY
One thing is certain: You can never count out Matt Hagan.
With much of the focus early in the Countdown to the Championship falling squarely on the battle between Robert Hight and a resurgent Bob Tasca III, the three-time Funny Car world champion was ready to remind the world that he is far from out of this thing.
Hagan returned to the thick of the playoff hunt two weeks ago with a thrilling victory at the Midwest Nationals in St. Louis, then backed that up with a second straight victory Sunday at the Texas NHRA FallNationals at the Texas Motorplex to take over the Funny Car points lead with two races remaining.
“What a wonderful day today,” Hagan said. “It was everything that we could hope for. Some heavy hitters went out early, and we were able to capitalize on that this weekend. It speaks volumes to be able to go back to back in Funny Car. To win six races out here is incredible, just shy of what Robert (Hight) did last year with eight. It’s hard to win one race in Funny Car, and to be able to pull down six wins this year is incredible. My goal this year was to win six or eight races, and here we are at six with two races left to go.”
Hagan defeated motorsports icon John Force in Sunday’s Funny Car final, powering his American Rebel Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat to victory with a 3.883-second pass at 332.25 mph. With the win, Hagan now sits one victory shy of 50 for his career while also tying Hight for the most Countdown wins (15) since the inception of the postseason program.
Force, in his 266th career final round, lost traction early in the run and was forced to get out of the throttle and settle for his second runner-up finish of the season. Force had wins on the day over Jeff Diehl, Cruz Pedregon and J.R. Todd.
It was far from an easy path to victory for Hagan, but with a strong team assembled by Tony Stewart -- a team which doubled up Sunday with Leah Pruett claiming the Wally in Top Fuel -- Hagan was able to find the support needed to continue to make the call and go rounds.
“I don’t know that we ran the best out there,” Hagan said. “We had some issues with the fuel pump falling off the car because it was so bumpy down there and stuff like that. We went through three fuel pumps, and we ran out of tires and you are thinking, ‘Oh, my gosh, I hope we’ve got enough parts and pieces.’ The guys stole some stuff from Leah’s team, but it is a great group, and everybody is willing to help and share, which makes it feel like family. That’s something that Tony really tried to instill with this group that we have over here. We’re building a legacy in the sport with what we’ve done and all of the races we’ve won. Now we’re thinking about trying to get TSR the first championship, and you just know it’s possible.”
With fellow contenders Hight, Tasca and defending class champion Ron Capps falling out in the opening two rounds Sunday, Hagan took full advantage. Hagan defeated Paul Lee and Alex Laughlin in the opening rounds with passes of 3.895 and 3.868, respectively, and then formally regained the points lead for the first time since August with a win over Tim Wilkerson in the semifinals.
Hagan reached his eighth final round of the year and the 87th of his career with a 3.875 at 328.85 in the semifinal win, getting away cleanly and easily driving around Wilkerson’s 3.897, 328.95.
Two weeks ago, Hagan also had wins over Force, Tasca and Capps to earn the victory in St. Louis, giving him 10 round wins in his last 11 competitive passes and, more importantly, keeping his closest competitors from gaining ground.
“Being able to capitalize on something like that doesn’t happen very often,” Hagan said. “For Capps, for Robert, for even Tasca to go out in the first two rounds, it just doesn’t happen. They are such a good group of cars that they’re going to be competitive and go rounds. So in St. Louis, I said, ‘We have to win St. Louis or we’re really not going to have a shot at this.’ And to come here and win this race, too, it puts us where we need to be.
“Someone said to me last weekend it’s like a knife fight in a phone booth, it’s going to be tight. I’m really proud of my guys, proud of Leah’s team, proud of everything we accomplished today.”
Hagan was especially proud to be able to double up alongside his Top Fuel teammate and provide team owner Tony Stewart another win in the sport. Hagan boldly stated that with Stewart helping guide this team, there is no reason this group can’t win the championship this year.
“What a great group we have over here,” Hagan said. “Tony Stewart, I just can’t say enough about him. The guy is incredible. He’s an incredible driver. He’s an incredible person, he’s incredible to work for, and he’s a great team owner. It’s actually taking pressure off of me because he can relate to what we’re doing in the wheelhouse as a driver. Tony has put a great group around us and gives us everything we need. There’s not been anything that Tony has said that we couldn’t get, so there’s no reason other than us that we shouldn’t win this championship.”
Now the focus shifts to Vegas in two weeks with only two races remaining in the 2023 NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series season. Hagan left Dallas with a 36-point advantage over Tasca, while Hight dipped to third, 69 markers off the pace.
“Two races to go, it’s anybody’s ballgame out there,” Hagan said. "We’ve always done pretty good in Vegas. We’ve always done really well here, so I was excited to get here and hopefully do what we just did today. We always say that you have to win two races in the Countdown to really have a shot at winning the championship. It’s still super close, but we’ve got two [race wins] in the Countdown already. Dickie [Venables] has been pushing hard and putting a great car underneath me, and my guys have been doing a great job. You can’t ask for anything more than that.
“We turned on win lights and took over the points lead again. We led the points pretty much all season, but you have some moments where stuff slips through the cracks and other people step up. We really rose to the occasion today and [at St. Louis] as well.”