POMONA, Calif. — official release by Candida Benson, National Dragster Senior Editor — NHRA photo —
Matt Hagan survived another epic, down-to-the-wire championship battle with 16-time and reigning NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series world champion John Force to earn the second Funny Car title of his career.
Hagan, who built up a 23-point lead in qualifying, and Force matched round-wins in final eliminations at the Auto Club NHRA Finals, and both are in the final round. However, a combination of Hagan advancing to the event title round and Force being unable to run quick enough for a national record run in the final ended the championship chase in favor of Hagan in the semifinals.
Hagan then added an exclamation point to his championship run, defeating Force in the final round for his fourth win of the year and third of the Countdown to the Championship.
“It’s just awesome to have this experience,” said Hagan. “What a lot of people don’t understand is it all comes down to this day, but it’s the five races before this and the preparation and all the points and all the drama and all the nerves that you’ve got to get through. This is a really special championship for me, so thank you and thanks all the fans.”
Hagan and Force met in the final round of the season opener at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona, where Force got the win. After that, Hagan’s team went through a bit of a slump with three straight first-round losses at the next events, and he dropped as low as 10th in the standings, but his team stuck with things and slowly started to put together solid performances. Hagan won in Chicago and steadily put round-wins on the board from that point forward.
Heading into the Countdown, Hagan was ranked seventh and 80 points behind No. 1 Force, but a win at the first event of the playoffs, the Pep Boys NHRA Carolina Nationals, lifted Hagan all the way up to third, and Hagan continued to steadily go rounds. He went to the second round in Dallas, then posted back-to-back finals in St. Louis and Reading, where he was the runner-up and the winner, respectively.
The win in Reading, which came after Force lost in the opening round, put Hagan in the points lead for the first time all season. Hagan went to the semi’s in Las Vegas, and though Force advanced to the final there, Hagan left with a 21-point edge.
Qualifying in Pomona was a back-and-forth affair between the two title contenders. Force fired the first shot, earning two bonus points Friday to shrink Hagan’s lead to 19 points, or less than a round. Hagan rebounded Saturday, pacing the third round of qualifying and nabbing one bonus point in the final session. The end result was a 23-point lead entering race day.
Hagan then defeated Chad Head, Ron Capps, and Tommy Johnson Jr. to earn a spot in the final and lock up his second world title.
“We came out there and stumbled a little bit on Friday, but [crew chief] Dickie Venables, he did a really good job recovering,” said Hagan. “He put a new fuel pump on the car, found a few mistakes that we made, and went out there and ran really strong and was able to keep the two rounds on John. It was a tough race down to the end.”
“We gave these fans what they were waiting for and paid for, and hopefully, we can go out and win another one, but it’s just great to be in this experience and be a part of this. This is bigger than me, and I’m just glad to be associated with this whole family.”