Sunday, November 06, 2011

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Matt Hagan is right back in the mix for an NHRA funny car championship

Rachel Hagan will be there in California for the big race next weekend. But if you're watching the event on television, don't rely on her reaction to tell you whether her husband, Matt, is bringing a national championship back home to Christiansburg.

Rachel has cried on TV when Matt has lost.

She also has cried on TV when Matt has won.

"I am emotional," she confessed with a laugh. "Matt is not."

That's probably a good thing. Given the stakes, Matt Hagan has every right to be a nervous wreck.

The 28-year-old Christiansburg cattle farmer enters the final race of the National Hot Rod Association Full Throttle Drag Racing Series holding a scant, one-point lead in the funny car standings.

Three rivals - Jack Beckman, Cruz Pedregon and Mike Neff - have a legitimate chance of overtaking him at this week's event in Pomona, Calif.

"We're all basically within 30 or 40 points of each other, so it's within a round or two," Hagan said by phone Thursday. "You'd better eat your Wheaties, because it really all comes down to this one day of who does the best."

Sound familiar? It sure does to Hagan, who entered last year's finale at the same track holding a 37-point edge on drag racing icon John Force.

Hagan was poised to win his first championship in just his second full season in the series. It was a Cinderella story that seemed destined to have a New River Valley-friendly ending.

And then it didn't.

"I remember going into the race, we really thought he had a good chance," said Rachel Hagan, who grew up in Wytheville. "That's why it was so devastating, I think. He was so far ahead going into that race, and then going out in the first round was just shocking."

Force wound up winning the event and the championship - his 15th. Rachel shed tears on TV. And the couple flew home to Christiansburg, fully educated on how arduous claiming one of these titles really is.

But a year later, Matt Hagan is right back in the mix. That's remarkable in itself. In mid-June, the Auburn High School graduate was more than 200 points back of the lead and in fifth place.

He admits he questioned whether he could contend again this year.

"There's points in time during the season where you're like, 'Man, we're in a rut,'" he said. "'We need to get out of this deal. They're going to brand the No. 5 on us if we don't.'"

But the funny car series, much like NASCAR's Sprint Cup, has a playoff system called The Countdown, which eliminates all but the top-10 drivers from championship contention and tightens the points heading into mid-September.

The first event of the "postseason" was Sept. 15-18 in Charlotte, N.C.

For Hagan, things could not have gone any better.

During qualifying, he became the first funny car driver in history to crack the 4-second barrier, recording a blistering 3.995. He backed up that world record by winning the race and surging to second in points.

"This crew and this car, we've set three world records now in the last two years," Hagan said. "Nobody has even come close to touching our first world record, so it's been truly amazing to get strapped into a car that has that potential when the conditions are right and know that you can be a dominant force at any given moment. It's a neat feeling to have that kind of confidence in the back of your mind."

He still has it, despite last year's missed opportunity. Hagan finished second at Pomona in the spring, so he knows he can tackle this track.

Qualifying - which has points implications in drag racing - begins Thursday. Hagan will fly out Tuesday to handle media obligations before making attempt No. 2 at the title.

He's not approaching it any differently than he did the first time.

"To feel like you've got to do more, you've got to do better, really can't be beneficial," Hagan said. "Some people can internalize pressure and do real well with it, but most people don't. So the stance that I'm taking on it, my game plan, is just do what we've done all year long. The same job."

Bet on some emotion from Rachel regardless of what happens.

But don't bet against that being tears of joy.

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