Matt Hagan has seen his fortunes fluctuate to an almost absurd degree over his five seasons in NHRA Funny Car. But in 2013, there's no question that the Dodge Charger driver heads into the Countdown as firm favorite, as Todd Veney reports.
Matt Hagan probably should have won the NHRA Funny Car championship in 2010, did win it in 2011, is a solid favorite to win it again in 2013, and didn't make the Countdown at all in 2009, his first full season, or in 2012, when he was the reigning champ. He has been at the pinnacle of the sport and at the bottom – usually one year after the other – but never anywhere in between. With him, it's all or nothing, which affords him a unique perspective for the upcoming Countdown to the Championship playoffs.
Hagan's Mopar/Rocky Boots Dodge Charger Funny Car has been the car to beat all season, with more victories (four) and more final-round appearances (seven) than any team in drag racing's most popular class. And to think that two weeks before the season began, he didn't even know who his crew chief was going to be…
“[Team owner] Don Schumacher called me before Pomona and told me that Dickie Venables was our guy,” Hagan says. “I knew what Dickie was capable of, but we never even made a lap before the season. Where we are right now, compared to where we probably should be, is unbelievable.”
In just their second race together (Phoenix), the duo advanced to the final round. Hagan went on to make the quickest run of the entire season (3.986sec) in Sonoma, win Charlotte, Englishtown, Chicago, and Seattle, and reach finals in Atlanta and Brainerd.
“Dickie is like no one I've ever worked with,” Hagan says. “He lives and breathes that car, and it shows on the racetrack. He's got two championship rings on his fingers, and now I can see why. I never really knew him until this year. I'd talked to him in the front of the hotel before our teams went out to the track maybe once or twice over the years – that was it.”
The turnaround since Venables came aboard has been nothing short of remarkable. Not only did Hagan not defend his 2011 title last year; he didn't win a single race, didn't even make it into the Countdown! Yet the 2010 season, when he finished second, was harder on him mentally. That year, just his second full season after making his debut five years ago this weekend at the 2008 U.S. Nationals, Hagan led the standings down to the last day. But after reaching three finals in a row, he was beaten in the first round at the Finals at Pomona and watched helplessly as NHRA's superstar John Force won the race and stole the championship that seemed destined to be his.
“It was very disappointing – overwhelming, really – because you never know if that opportunity is going to come again,” Hagan says. “It happened so early in my career. I mean, guys spend 10 or 15 years trying to win a championship and there I was, still learning how to drive the car, and I was right in the hunt. When we lost it at the end, I had no idea how to handle it emotionally. The internet blew up when I didn't want to do a TV interview right after I got out of the car, and I got a lot of flak for being a bad sport. Later that day, I shook John's hand and congratulated every guy on the whole team, but that was off-camera – nobody saw it. People thought I was pouting. I learned a lot of life lessons that day.”
Hagan underwent a rigorous offseason workout program, entered the 2011 season more committed than ever, and won the title. “It was incredible,” he says. “It got down to crunch time, and I did my part.”Then came the disastrous title defense in 2012. “I had so much success early in my career that maybe I took it for granted,” Hagan says. “That's never going to happen again, trust me. Last year really humbled me. It also helped me, made me ask myself, ‘What can I do to be better? Am I doing enough?' “
This year has been his best to date – even better than the championship year of 2011, when he won once in the regular season and once in the Countdown. “If we win Indy this weekend, we'll be in first place going into the Countdown, and if we get beat first round and [Mopar DSR teammate Ron] Capps wins, we'll still be in first place, but you always want to keep putting rounds on everybody no matter how far ahead you are. Championships are won by two or three points now, and the cars run too close together for any one guy to dominate, but when you get 'em down, you've got to keep your foot right on their throat because if you let 'em up, they'll come back to get you! I almost wish there was no Countdown because our big lead is about to become a small lead, but when we won it in ‘11, we started the Countdown in fifth place, so I know how fast things can change.”
Just don't look for Hagan and his Mopar DSR teammates – four-time series runner-up Ron Capps, 2012 champ Jack Beckman, and Johnny Gray – to share many speed secrets.
“We really don't need to work with each other much,” Hagan says. “When I was getting started, I had a lot of folks giving me direction and it helped because these cars are animals, an absolute handful every time you step on the pedal. Now, we'll all meet in the morning and talk, but it's not about what we're going to do if we have to race each other. I don't want to know what they're doing – I'm doing my own thing. I don't want to mess with anyone up on the starting line or try to get in anyone's head, and I don't worry about who's in the lane next to me – ever. I know what I need to do, and I know that if I do my job, I have the car to win it all.”
MOPAR IN PRO STOCK
If top-ranked Matt Hagan or teammates Ron Capps (currently in second place), Johnny Gray (tied for third) or Jack Beckman (seventh) bring home the NHRA Funny Car championship this season, they might not be the only Mopar driver to win a Mello Yello Drag Racing Series title. As the regular season winds down and the Countdown to the Championship playoffs loom, Mopar Pro Stock drivers Allen Johnson, Jeg Coughlin, and Vincent Nobile are second, third, and fourth in the standings, respectively, behind leader Mike Edwards.
Johnson, the reigning Pro Stock champion who dominated 2012 with a career-high seven wins at the wheel of the Mopar Dodge Avenger, has four already this season: Denver, where he ruled the Mopar Mile-High Nationals as he seems to every year, Gainesville, Las Vegas, and Epping.
Right behind A.J. is Coughlin, a four-time series champion (2000, '02, '07, and '08) who is always at his best when the pressure is the highest – in the Countdown. Coughlin has a pair of wins in the regular season (Topeka and Chicago) and four runner-up finishes – three of them to Nobile. Nobile was the early points leader after winning the season-opening Winternationals in Pomona, and he's won two of the last three races to climb to fourth in the standings.
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