DENVER, Colo. — official release — Matt Hagan isn’t going to make any bold claims following his first win of the season. But heading into a crucial stretch of the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series season it was precisely the type of performance the Funny Car standout wanted to see.
Hagan picked up a hard-earned victory in Chicago, giving the team a noticeable burst of energy heading into this weekend’s event in Norwalk. It also sets up Hagan and his 10,000-horsepower Mopar Express Lane/Rocky Boots Dodge Charger favorably for the three-week NHRA Western Swing that begins with the 35th annual Mopar Mile-High NHRA Nationals at Bandimere Speedway, July 18-20.
The pivotal three-race stretch is a major opportunity for drivers to make an impressive move in the points standings with the Mello Yello Countdown to the Championship right around the corner. Hagan is well aware of that and talked about the importance of doing well in Denver, which marks the 14th of 24 races on the 2014 Mello Yello Drag Racing Series circuit.
“You definitely want to kick off Denver and the Western Swing in the right direction,” Hagan said. “It’s huge to do well in this three-race swing. It’s a dream of mine to sweep the swing, but you have to take it one race at a time. We’ll take that momentum from Chicago into this race, but you have to stay humble with these cars. You need consistency and a bunch of good runs, and then you can talk about a championship. You can’t get too excited from one win.”
Spencer Massey (Top Fuel), Cruz Pedregon (Funny Car), Allen Johnson (Pro Stock) and Shawn Gann (Pro Stock Motorcycle) were winners of the 2013 event. The race will once again be televised on ESPN2 HD.
With a string of solid performances as of late Hagan, the 2012 Funny Car world champion, has re-entered the championship conversation. He climbed to eighth in the points standings with his 11th career win and appears to have erased the early-season struggles that produced three straight first-round losses.
That was a far cry from the Hagan of 2013 who started out white-hot and had three wins and five final round appearances by this point in the season. But Hagan’s talented team, led by crew chief Dickie Venables have started to put the right pieces in place.
“John Force proved it last year that you can struggle at the beginning of the year and come on strong at the end to win a championship,” Hagan said. “It’s definitely special to see it come together like it did in Chicago. It’s been tough and everyone wants to win. It was definitely a shot in the arm. The smile on all the guys’ faces lifts everyone’s spirits. We put a lot of pressure on ourselves so when it does come together that pressure is just lifted.”
But as Hagan talked about, he knows one fantastic performance and one victory doesn’t equate a championship. The next step is building on the Chicago victory, where he knocked off Don Schumacher Racing teammates Jack Beckman, Ron Capps and Tommy Johnson Jr. during eliminations.
That consistency gets even more difficult to produce thanks to the challenges Denver presents. At an elevation of more than 5,800 feet, the Bandimere Speedway altitude affects everything from engine tune-ups to aerodynamics, meaning set-ups must be completely overhauled for the race. Hagan also has to deal with the talented Funny Car ranks that includes defending winner Pedregon, current points leader Robert Hight, six-time Denver winner John Force, Courtney Force, two-time season winner Alexis DeJoria and Tim Wilkerson.
But Hagan, who also does an impressive amount of promotional work for the Mopar-sponsored event, knows the mindset necessary to succeed in Denver.
“Denver is just tough,” Hagan said. “The altitude changes everything up but it all goes away when you get in the seat. Up until that point it’s a crazy, chaotic event, but when you get in the car, that all fades away. It’s just about leaving the starting line, keeping it in the groove and turning on that win light. In that four seconds, it all slows down for you. That’s your time right there. It’s hard to block out everything that’s going on, but it’s my job to focus and not let my guys down.”