It wasn’t the exact way Matt Hagan had planned to win his fourth NHRA Funny Car world championship, but it was the final point that showed his championship was about an overall impressive body of work and not just one particular run.
The strong season from start to finish proved to be pivotal, as Hagan took the points lead into the final event of the NHRA season, the In-N-Out Burger NHRA Finals. It proved to be the difference, too, in a tightly-contested points battle between Hagan, Robert Hight and Bob Tasca III.
The trio was only separated by 17 points heading into the finale, but in a wild turn of events, each lost in the second round on Sunday at In-N-Out Burger Pomona Dragstrip. That meant the championship belonged to Hagan and his 11,000-horsepower Dodge Direct Connection Charger SRT Hellcat, securing a distinct honor for the longtime standout.
Not only did it give Tony Stewart Racing its first NHRA world championship, but it also handed Hagan his fourth title, allowing him to a join a group that includes John Force, Don Prudhomme and Kenny Bernstein as the only Funny Car drivers in NHRA history with four or more world titles.
“It’s about our body of work and it paid off,” Hagan said. “You have to reflect on that and it’s just incredible. We won six races and I can’t say enough about my team. They’re all coming back next year and everyone is excited about that.
“It speaks volumes to the group (Tony) has assembled and his ability to lead as a team owner. It’s just unbelievable we were able to do that this year. There’s a lot of heavy hitters out here and it came down to the last day of the last race. It says a lot about our class and this is why we do it.”
Hagan impressed from the outset of the 2023 campaign and never really let up, opening up with early-season wins in Gainesville, Pomona and the four-wide race in Las Vegas. Unlike last year, there was no summer swoon, as Hagan and his team, led by crew chief Dickie Venables, found an ideal tune-up in warm weather, advancing to finals in Norwalk, Denver and Topeka, also winning the final race on Thunder Mountain.
He entered the Countdown to the Championship second in points and after a slow start, Hagan rolled to a pair of critical wins in St. Louis and Dallas. That gave him the lead for good, which proved pivotal when things went haywire for all the top contenders in Pomona.
“You’ve got to be in these high-pressure situations to grow, and my guys have been blood, sweat and tears all season long,” Hagan said. “I’m just glad to bring this trophy home. It’s super special to me. I’ve surrounded myself with people better than me and that’s why I’m in this position. I’ve settled in with a great group and our body of work speaks for itself.”
Hagan and his team weren’t wildly flashy, only clocking one No. 1 qualifier, but they were remarkably consistent and quick, qualifying second two times, third five times and fourth five more times. The team ran well in a multitude of conditions and Hagan was always on his game, advancing to eight final rounds and picking up 40 round wins this year.
He’s now a win away from 50 career Funny Car victories – after also picking up his 50th career No. 1 qualifier in 2023 – and fully thankful of what he has achieved in the sport and the spot in NHRA Funny Car history he has carved out.
“Looking back, I never set out to be a drag racer,” Hagan said. “It’s just something that happened. I never would have dreamed to make it into a career. It’s just incredible to be in the ranks of those caliber of drivers. It blows my mind and doesn’t even feel real. You get to create those moments and those memories, and that’s exciting.”
The 2024 NHRA Mission Foods Drag Racing Series begins March 7-10 with the 55th annual NHRA Gatornationals at historic Gainesville Raceway. For more information about NHRA, including the 2024 schedule, please visit www.NHRA.com.