LAS VEGAS – Matt Hagan has certainly been through this routine before.
In fact, the Funny Car standout is starting to carve out quite a rivalry with John Force, who took over the points lead for the first time in 2013 after winning the Auto-Plus NHRA Nationals at Maple Grove Raceway on Oct. 6.
Hagan, who had been the points leader in the class for more than four months, now trails the 15-time world champion by 65 points with only two events left in the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series Countdown to the Championship playoffs. The season’s penultimate race, the 13th annual NHRA Toyota Nationals, will be held Oct. 24-27 at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Bob Vandergriff (Top Fuel), Ron Capps (Funny Car), and defending world champions Allen Johnson (Pro Stock) and Eddie Krawiec (Pro Stock Motorcycle) raced to victories last season at the popular event.
Hagan will have his work cut out for him to track down the red-hot Force, who has won the last two events. But duking it out with the Funny Car icon is nothing new for the 2011 world champion.
“I think that three out of my five years in my NHRA career it has been me and Force battling it out,” Hagan said. “It’s kind of like ‘Wow, we’re doing this again.’ It’s a neat deal for me. If you’re going to battle it out, why not do it with a 15-time champion? His bite is pretty bad, but we have a car that has led the points almost all year long. I feel like it’s the car to beat. We’ve had a couple off races in this Countdown and our Don Schumacher Racing teammates have been beating the crap out of us. We’ve had to run some really good cars with the same parts that we have and we’ve raced on some tricky race tracks.”
Hagan and Force battled it out in both 2010 and 2011, with each earning a championship. In 2010, Hagan knocked off Force to win a Countdown race in Dallas and was the points leader and favorite heading into the final race, despite losing in the final to Force at Las Vegas. But Hagan fell in the first round at Pomona, opening the door for Force, who won the event and claimed the title in dramatic fashion.
A year later, Hagan stayed in control throughout the Countdown, winning in Pomona to close out the year and claim his first championship. Now, Hagan and his 8,000-horsepower Magneti Marelli/Rocky Boots Dodge Charger will need more late-season magic to jump past Force’s familiar Castrol GTX Ford Mustang.
“I’m excited about Vegas and I feel like it will be great,” Hagan said. “I understand that we still have to be humble because we aren’t leading, but we still have to be aggressive. We have to play offense now because we don’t have anything to defend. We have to go out there and put some points on the board and I feel like we can do that. We have a team that is strong. I’ve never felt this good about being in a situation where you’re chasing someone. I just feel really good about it.”