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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