Matt Hagan Climbs Back into Nitro Funny Car Title Hunt
Tops Andy Kelley in final round at Sooner Nationals in Tulsa to pull within 51 points of front-running Terry Haddock
Tulsa, Ok. (Aug. 24, 2008) -- When Matt Hagan did not qualify for the eight-car Nitro Funny Car field at the Northern Nationals in Martin three weeks ago, the prevailing thought was that his championship hopes flew out the window. After he stopped Andy Kelley to claim the Ironman Sunday at Tulsa Raceway Park those title hopes, which seemed so slim in Michigan, came roaring back.
In the blistering heat at Tulsa Raceway Park Hagan stopped Andy Kelley, the champion at US 131 Motorsports Park three weeks ago, in the final round to claim the Nitro Funny Car Ironman at the Skull Shine Sooner Nationals. The victory over Kelley capped a brilliant weekend for Hagan that saw him win 10 Last Man Standing bonus points, qualify #1 overall and end up pulling to within 51 points of Haddock at the top of the standings.
"I felt like someone ripped my guys out and was stomping on them," Hagan said about his DNQ in Martin. "To be in the position we were in, having done so well and having won two races, that DNQ it felt like someone took a stick and hit me in the head."
He did know, however, with John Smith tuning his 2008 Solera the championship chase was far from over.
"I have a lot of faith in them," he said of Smith and his father, Paul Smith, who advises on the car. "They have a lot of ability and there was a lot of potential in this car. I figured it would just take one more race to prove it."
Hagan was able to prove it with a career-best 4.994 run at 306.26 mph during Saturday evening qualifying. He followed that up with a string of steady runs in the 5.100-second range to march through eliminations. He knocked off Kelley in the final by clocking a 5.113 at 301.81 mph to topple Kelley's 5.194/285.83 pass.
"(The championship) is very obtainable right now," Hagan said. "I set my goals this year to win three races, and this is my third win. Now the goal is to win a championship and I think, with this race car and the Smiths tuning it, it's possible."
Spencer Massey (Fort Worth, Tex.) won his fourth Top Fuel Ironman of the season, giving himself some breathing room atop the national points standings, when he defeated Terry McMillen in the final at Tulsa Raceway Park. The win, coupled with his semifinal victory over Bruce Litton, gave him a 73-point bulge atop the Top Fuel standings.
"It's never over until it's over, but we have six rounds left and a 70-point lead give or take a few," Massey said. "Our whole goal this race was to keep pace with Bruce Litton, I wanted to at lest go as many rounds as him so he couldn't drive around us. When we beat Bruce in the second round it was a blessing, it was almost like winning the race to me."
Massey almost was not around to try to keep pace with Litton. Heading into the final qualifying session Saturday he was on the wrong side of the bump spot. He did enough to get into the field, then defeated Mitch King in the first round before stopping Litton and McMillen. McMillen smoked his tires in the final while Massey ran a clean 4.891 at 304.94 mph.
"We have been to three finals in a row now, and this was our fourth win," Massey said. "I'm really living the dream. What started really well in San Antonio has really snowballed. I'm getting more confident with the car and that has given me some confidence."
Kenny Lang (Grande Pointe, Manitoba) needed a shot in the arm in Tulsa. The veteran Pro Modified driver had built a large early-season points lead, but had been in a four-race slump that had whittled his once-large lead down to just 47 points to Mike Castellana. At Tulsa Raceway Park Lang was able to right the ship.
He defeated Castellana in the final round to "hold serve" and keep control of his own destiny in the chase for the championship. Lang ran a 6.272 at 230.96 mph to drive past Castellana's tire-shaking 7.060/158.73 in the final.
"Mike was tough and fast all weekend, so to go pace on pace with him on a weekend he was flying was really important," Lang said. "Getting to the finals against him was good, beating him in the final was that much more important."
Castellana picked up points on Lang during qualifying, claiming both five-point Last Man Standing bonuses. This made the final round that much more imperative for Lang.
"We picked up a little bit on him, not much, but we had a decent lead on him before and had worked it up to 90 points which was starting to get comfortable," he said. "He got two Last Man Standings on us but we were able to win the race. This does not make things comfortable for us, but it does make things a little better."
Dale Brand (Sully, Iowa) was able to derail the Alcohol Funny Car train that is Laurie Cannister, handing her only her third round loss of the season in the final at Tulsa Raceway Park. Cannister has all but clinched the 2008 AFC world championship, but for one day Brand was at the top of the heap. He set a track record in the final round, clocking a 5.764 at 247.29 mph, to win his first Ironman of the season.
"That Cannister team is awesome, Dale is a great tuner and Laurie is a great driver," Brand said. "But this weekend was the performance this car has been capable of all year. We've been struggling dramatically with our consistency, but Eric Brand really had this car consistent and in great shape this weekend."
Brand qualified fourth on the ladder before defeating Tony Bogolo in the first round and Tom Carter in the semifinals.
"Our entire crew performed flawlessly this weekend so we're very proud," he said. "Any time we can beat Laurie's team it's pretty fulfilling."
Pro Stock fans should take notice; the 2008 IHRA Pro Stock points chase promises to be one for the ages. Four drivers are within 74 points of the lead, with just three points separating front-runner Jeff Dobbins from Pete Berner. Berner tightened things up considerably when he knocked off John Montecalvo in the final round in Tulsa. Dobbins fell in the second round to Bob Bertsch and left Tulsa Raceway Park with 561 points. Berner has 558.
"The points race is very, very tight right now," Berner said. "Everyone kind of moved around a little bit and it's really close at the top. We just have to stay strong and not get caught up in it. If we can continue to make good runs things like this will happen."
The win in Tulsa was Berner's first visit to the Winner's Circle this season.
"We went to three straight final rounds, but this was the first time we were able to get it done," he said. "We got it done and it was a really good weekend for us."