What a battle.

In a qualifying showdown to remember, Matt Hagan capped an extremely competitive four sessions with a chart-topping 3.822-second pass at a new track-record 336.32 mph to earn the first top qualifier award of the season Saturday at the Lucas Oil NHRA Winternationals presented by ProtectTheHarvest.com at Auto Club Raceway.

In a wild two days of preliminary action, the bar was lowered following each qualifying session with three different Don Schumacher Racing drivers holding the top spot. Ron Capps, Jack Beckman and Hagan each took a turn atop the charts, but it was Hagan’s final run of the day that handed the driver of the Mopar Dodge Charger R/T Funny Car his 31st career No. 1 start.

“When you are dealing with (crew chief) Dickie Venables, that car is always on go. You just can’t say enough about the guy. I am very, very blessed and lucky to have him in our corner,” Hagan said. “Even with the rule changes and the headers back up and everything else, it just shows you how smart these crew chiefs are and why they make the big bucks. My guys are killing it right now. We had a tremendous test session and learned all kinds of stuff and then to come out here and really have a dream start to the season, is pretty cool.”

But it wasn’t easy.

After taking the top spot following Q3, Hagan saw his lead evaporate when Robert Hight briefly took over the qualifying lead with a 3.850 at 334.24 mph in Q4. But two pairs later, Hagan bettered his time for the fourth consecutive session to earn the top spot going into Sunday.

Hight qualified second, while Jack Beckman is third with a 3.860 at 332.84 mph. Courtney Force (3.877) and Ron Capps (3.882) round out the top five.

“That right lane is a little tricky to navigate because it sucks you in and then it pulls you to the wall so you definitely have to make some corrections,” Hagan said. “On a fast run like that, you basically overdrive the car. I made a couple of corrections on the big end and was just hoping it didn’t come loose because the clutch had already come together and it was running good. But those guys put it all together which is needed to make those kinds of numbers go down the racetrack. It was cool to get in there, get calm, and drive my ass off.”

Adding to the magic of the veteran pair of Hagan and crew chief Dickie Venables, the team also had to overcome a bit of a delay following a lengthy on-track cleanup, and that is where Venables showed just why he is considered one of the best in the business as he continued making adjustments on the car right up until firing the motor.

“Dickie makes changes all the way until they fire it up and even then he makes changes,” Hagan said. “In the box, he is always thinking. He gets quiet on the radio, but the wheels are always turning. He is always crawling in there and making changes. It really does come down to the last minute or two before we run. He has more of a gut instinct and a feel for what he is going to do and what the track is going to do. He’s got a lot of experience and that is the stuff you just can’t get overnight. When he is up there making those changes, you know there is a reason behind it. It is just cool to see the guy work.

“On my end, a lot of guys overthink these things. Your adrenaline is going, sure, but for me, I am telling myself to leave on time, keep it in the groove, turn the win light on, pull the parachutes, all the stuff that becomes routine. You can’t look at the big picture, it gets overwhelming. I look at what I can control, what I can do to make it better and minimize mistakes. I don’t have that much control over that much stuff in there, so I keep it simple.”

Hagan will match up with Jim Campbell in round one on Sunday as the two-time champion looks to get the 2018 season started off on the right foot.

“The weather was awesome today and that is why we saw these awesome numbers. Tomorrow is going to be more like Friday. When the sun comes out, stuff slows down. And it is race day,” Hagan said. “You have got to get out of the first round first and then take it one lap at a time.

“You can have all of the swagger and boast that you want, but when you crawl in there everyone is equal. It’s one of those deals where you have to depend on your guys and they have to depend on you. That is why it is a team sport.”