Welcome back, NHRA!
After a nearly five-month gap between races, the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series returned in full force over the weekend with Matt Hagan leading the way with an exciting, car-banging victory to welcome the series back in style Sunday at the E3 Spark Plugs NHRA Nationals at Lucas Oil Raceway.
“I’ll tell you what, it’s pretty amazing just to be out here and to be a part of the NHRA again,” Hagan said. “All of the folks that are supporting us, they are back out here watching us this weekend and I’m just really proud to be a part of it.”
Hagan won in dramatic fashion in the first nitro-powered final round since February. While the race itself wasn’t much to write home about, with No. 1 qualifier Tommy Johnson Jr. clicking it off just past the 330-foot mark, the result at the other end of the track certainly was.
As Hagan neared the stripe, his Mopar-powered Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat Funny Car let go with a massive fireball as Hagan limped across the stripe with a 4.328-second pass at 215.00 mph to earn his 34th career victory in the class. Johnson followed behind the event champion with a 5.854 at 117.84 mph.
Making matters worse, a piece of the car came loose and tagged Hagan in the leg. While he was uninjured in the incident, it still made for a rather dramatic finish to an exciting return to racing.
“I had a valve come through and tag me on my knee pretty hard. I hate that it’s my pedal foot, but hell, I’ve been kicked by cattle a little harder than that. It will take some ice, but it’ll be alright,” Hagan said. “It was one of those SportsCenter moments like I had a few years back, but you never go up there thinking it’s going to be a coasting, drifting, pedalfest kind of run. I probably should have pedaled the car instead of lagging it out a little bit, but you look over and there is nobody there and you just hate to pull your foot out of it and put it back in it.
“Sometimes it’s just a gut decision and obviously it had some holes out and it didn’t like itself and beat itself up a little bit and banged the blower. At the end of the day, we got the win light. We got the trophy. And that’s what the sponsors want.”
Sunday’s exciting finale culminated a busy day for the two-time champion.
Hagan marched through Daniel Wilkerson, Jack Beckman and Tim Wilkerson on his way to his first final round of the year.
Hagan had strong runs against the Wilkerson father-son duo as both drivers were forced to click it off early, but by far his closest race of the afternoon came in the second round against Don Schumacher Racing teammate Beckman. The two drivers were welded together at the light and remained that way the entirety of the 1,000-foot track with Hagan turning on the win light by nine-thousandths of a second.
Hagan crossed the stripe with a 3.949 at 321.19 mph while Beckman followed right behind with a 3.969 at 316.90 mph.
Hagan’s final round opponent Johnson, who was in his second-consecutive final round four months apart, had round wins over Ron Capps, Blake Alexander, and J.R. Todd.
Fireball aside, it was the perfect ending to a successful afternoon for Hagan as he showed the strength of his team coming back from what has been an unprecedented time for all of the racers and teams in the sport.
“We have a lot going on, but to be able to come out today and watch Dickie Venables and Mike Knudsen and Alex Conway make the changes and adjustments and adapt to these hotter conditions and still put a great race car underneath me, it shows the type of guys we have,” Hagan said. “Our guys did what they needed to do today to turn four win lights on. I’m really proud of them. I’m glad we’re kicking this thing off right.”
Hagan was especially pleased to win the race for Conway, who was celebrating a birthday on Sunday, as he reflected on just what it meant to be out racing with his Don Schumacher Racing team following the delay caused by the pandemic.
“It’s Alex Conway’s birthday, so he’s going to get the trophy today. But today is really about us coming back and showing some value for our sponsors and keeping these crew guys in jobs,” Hagan said. “I’m really proud of Don Schumacher Racing for not parking this stuff and still being out here and keeping these guys and their families employed. It’s just really special to be a part of something like that. To get a win on top of that just feels amazing.”
While Hagan and Johnson both added to their point totals with final round visits on Sunday, the biggest winner in the return to racing was Beckman, who maintained his spot atop the championship standings. Johnson remained in second, but closed the gap to just two points, while Hagan moved up to third.