Reigning NHRA Funny Car champion Matt Hagan and his Mopar/Aaron's Dream Machine team still are trying to shake off the discontent that their late surge didn't result in a Countdown berth this season. They're moving past regrets, self-criticism, and doubt.
They're ready for the O'Reilly Auto Parts Nationals that will kick off the Countdown to the Championship at zMAX Dragway at Concord, N.C.
"No matter what you do and no matter how you look at it, it doesn't soften the shortcomings our team had for the first 13 races this year," Hagan said.. "We know we're better than that. Everybody knows we're better than that."
He has a plan for these last six events on the Full Throttle Drag Racing Series schedule, though. He has that same gritty attitude toward his competition and that same drive to win races, even though they won't count toward a series crown. However, points leader Ron Capps, who desperately wants a first championship just as much as Hagan did last season and is in the same position Hagan was last year, said Hagan's team might provide some help to his Don Schumacher Racing colleagues.
Hagan certainly isn't going to behave like the Wal-Mart greeter, who invites a shopper into the store with a smile and encourages him to browse through all the merchandise.
"My attitude is I'm not going out there to make friends. The gloves are coming off. They've been off, but now I'll do whatever it takes to win," Hagan said about those wishing to replace him as champion. "I'm going to each race to wreck their day. I don't care. I'm going to have fun trying to win races. We didn't do what we needed to do. Now maybe we can mess with someone else's day and put a frown on their face."
It's the same approach Johnny Gray took after he missed the Countdown cut last year. And Gray made good on his threats, qualifying No. 1 at Reading and reaching three straight final rounds (at Reading, Phoenix, and Las Vegas). That motivated him to become Funny Car's No. 5 seed this year.
"I've always felt I could rise to the occasion, so it will be a challenge for me to see if I can adapt to not having pressure on me and making myself get up and really do what I need to do to win races," Hagan said. "My whole career out here has been pressure-filled drama. Every year it's been about fighting for points."
This time it isn't, not at this point. So while Hagan insists he will continue to drive as though he's qualified for the Countdown and is scrounging for every available point, Capps said he's looking at Hagan's crew chief, Tommy DeLago, as part of the DSR brain trust that benefits all the teams. He knows that also means Jack Beckman and Johnny Gray also might profit.
Capps said he recognizes that right now, Hagan and DeLago aren't in a particularly generous mood.
"It's hard to judge what a guy is going to be like," Capps said, trying to answer a question during this week's NHRA-sponsored teleconference about predicting Hagan's demeanor for the Countdown. "I know right now he and Tommy DeLago are really mad. I spent Sunday evening with Tommy. The frustration, disappointment is going through their head. There's a perfect example. You have a guy that won the championship last year, didn't make it this year. That right there tells you how tough this class is."
However, Capps said, "One good thing is, Tommy, he's an innovator type of crew chief. They ran a three-second run last year (at this fall race at zMAX Dragway). The cool part is he may just try something, find it, and I think that might benefit his teammates, [including] Johnny Gray['s] and Beckman's cars. I think that's the good side of somebody in our camp going out there, letting it all hang out, just trying things."
Said Capps, "I have to tell you: Don Schumacher has put together such a group of great people in the crew chief area, there's really no egos.
"What's neat [is] on Saturday night, I'll sit down with Tobler [his own crew chief, Rahn Tobler] and debrief with him and John Collins, our assistant crew chief. And a lot of times we'll have a glass of wine or something, go over what went on in the weekend, what to look forward to on Sunday, and in come all these other crew chiefs and they sit down," he said. "You could literally walk into our lounge on a Saturday night and have almost all the crew chiefs in there talking about what they did.
"So that really raises the bar. I don't mean dragster guys, but other Funny Car crew chiefs. It's that kind of knowledge that's being spread around that's elevated everything at DSR. I'm so proud to be able to walk around and see the crew chiefs talking to each other," Capps said.
No matter where he receives inspiration, encouragement, or nuts-and-bolts help during the Countdown, Capps promised he will be grateful.
"I've learned long ago, believe me, I don't take anything for granted," Capps said. "When we're running good, I'm the last guy talking smack. Those wins, you take them, put them in your pocket, you thank God you got to go to the winner's circle, because it's so tough to do that nowadays. You don't get cocky.
"The guys that are going to get cocky, jump up and down, celebrate the week after if they happen to do at a race in this Countdown, those guys are going to fade quick, because you can't hesitate for a second. You can't say, 'Man, look at me.' You just got to stay focused," he said.
"I'm telling you, these four races coming up in a row, three-quarters of the Countdown is going to be done when we leave Reading, Pennsylvania. You're a guy that's going to be real happy looking forward to Vegas. You have a cushion, fighting for the championship, or you're going to be a guy or girl that you're going to look at Vegas like, 'Man, we need to get back into this.' I've been on both sides of that," Capps said.
He's confident, all right, saying, "Everything Rahn has done with the car, really it's made it one of the best cars in every type of condition that we go to." Yet Capps said even if he's "at the top," he said, fans and foes won't see him project overconfidence.
How could he, when his potential "helper" Hagan just might be the one who ruins his best chance for a championship?
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