While every driver is heading to the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals presented by Auto-Plus to try and win drag racing's most prestigious event and become a part of its rich history, several drivers in each category are looking for a winning performance to be able to continue their quests for a world championship title and advance to NHRA's playoffs, the Full Throttle Countdown to the Championship. One of those drivers is defending Funny Car champion Matt Hagan.
Last year Hagan earned his first championship title in dramatic fashion at the last race of the year. The Virginia cattle rancher will need to draw off of that experience in order to keep his hopes alive to defend that championship title this year. A season of struggles has kept Hagan out of the top 10 for most of the season. However, his Aaron's/Mopar Dodge Charger has got hot in the last three races and posted back-to-back runner-up finishes at Sonoma and Seattle and a semifinal effort at Brainerd.
He comes to Indy in 11th place in the standings, trailing 10th place Bob Tasca by 19 points. Only the top 10 in each category advance to the six-race Full Throttle Countdown to the Championship with a shot at winning a world championship title.
Hagan is hoping to keep his recent momentum alive at the sport's oldest and most tradition-rich event, Aug. 29-Sept. 3 at Lucas Oil Raceway at Indianapolis. Antron Brown (Top Fuel), Mike Neff (Funny Car), Greg Anderson (Pro Stock) and Hector Arana Jr. (Pro Stock Motorcycle) are the defending winners of the NHRA Full Throttle Series event that will be televised on ESPN2HD in more than 10 hours of coverage during Labor Day weekend.
“I'm just glad we still have a fighting chance to go out there and do this thing,” Hagan said. “We still have a big hill to climb. Bob Tasca is in front of us and it's just a matter of getting out there and making big plays and stepping up to the plate and trying to knock it out of the park. But things have got to line up, too. If Tasca goes out and wins the race, we can't change that.”
Hagan says he plans to just focus on his routine and try to stay in the moment, a similar strategy he used in his championship-winning effort last November.
“You can't change what other people do, you can only control what you have available in front of you and that's what we have tried to focus on, is going out there, digging deep, keep on time, keeping it in the groove, turning the win light on and the rest will take care of itself,” Hagan said.
He says his season has been like a very bad dream. The first half of the year produced eight first round losses and a DNQ.
“We've had a horrible year,” Hagan said. “Nobody expected us to come out and struggle the way we have. But that's life and that's what you have to deal with. It's just been nice that we have finally got a combination that the car has responded to, and the car is finally coming around.”
Hagan, who won the title last year from sixth place in the regular season, knows that once you are in the Countdown, each driver has a shot at winning it. He says his confidence is still there. He knows his team is capable of getting on a streak, winning some rounds and races. And who knows, maybe even another championship title.
“It's been tough for me to deal with it a little bit, but on the flipside, you know, we have won a world championship, set three world records in the last two years and won a handful of races,” Hagan said. “I know that our team is capable of doing this and getting it done. I really believe in them and I believe in my crew chief and I believe in everybody. We are just ready to go out and hunt this thing down.”
If Hagan is going to rally for the dramatic entrance into the Countdown playoffs, he's going to have to hold off a strong group of challengers, including series leader Ron Capps and 2009 Indy winner Robert Hight. Jack Beckman, Johnny Gray, Cruz Pedregon, four-time Indy winner John Force, rookie sensation Courtney Force and defending event winner Neff will certainly be racing hard for the victory.
Two other drivers join Hagan outside the top 10 who are trying to qualify for the Countdown, including 12th place Tim Wilkerson, who is 28 points out of 10th in his Levi Ray and Shoup Ford Mustang, and Alexis DeJoria, who has a very slim mathematical chance of making the playoffs from 13th place.
In Top Fuel, only three points separate 10th place Bob Vandergriff and 11th place Clay Millican. Rookie driver Khalid alBalooshi is 79 points back in 12th place and 13th place Terry McMillen is a longshot to make the playoffs.
As many as seven drivers are in the hunt to make the playoffs in Pro Stock, as 32 points separate the seventh place driver to the 11th place driver. Only 21 points stand between 8th place Shane Gray and 11th place Jeg Coughlin, a four-time Pro Stock world champ. Coughlin trails 10th place V. Gaines by only two points. Ronnie Humphrey is 21 points out of 10th and Rodger Brogdon is a longshot in 13th place, 81 points back of 10th.
In Pro Stock Motorcycle, 11th place John Hall trails 10th place rider Shawn Gann by 22 points and two-time Indy winner Steve Johnson is 12th, 56 points back of Gann.