Story By: SCOTT SMITH / NHRA – DINWIDDIE, VA – After a frustrating three-race stretch that dropped Matt Hagan out of the points lead, a final round appearance followed by a No. 1 qualifier last weekend showed the two-time Funny Car world champion that things may again be headed back on the right path.
Hagan hopes the next step is securing his second win of the 2018 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series season at this weekend’s inaugural Virginia NHRA Nationals at Virginia Motorsports Park. Racing just four hours from home, the Christiansburg, Va., native is anxious to return to the track for the first time since 2009, especially in a 10,000-horsepower Mopar Express Lane Dodge Charger R/T that appears to be back on track when it comes to contending for race wins.
“I feel like we’re coming around,” said Hagan, who is currently fourth in Funny Car points. “It’s sometimes tough to see that from the outside, but internally I feel like we’re moving in the right direction. We’re going to be right there. We can get in that groove and feel like we’re back to the days of kicking butt. This team as a core, it’s one of the best groups I’ve had as far as chemistry. Nobody has complained, and everybody just keeps working hard. That’s a good sign.”
The top stars in Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock, and Pro Stock Motorcycle will all try to pick up wins at a race that will be televised on Fox Sports 1 (FS1), including finals coverage beginning at 6 p.m. on Sunday. It is the 10th of 24 events during a 2018 NHRA season that has already been a rollercoaster for the 27-time event winner and his team, which is led by crew chief Dickie Venables.
Hagan started his 2018 campaign with a win in Pomona and a final round appearance in Gainesville but followed with just one round win over the next three races amidst changing track conditions. Hagan and his team responded to the minor misstep in championship fashion, though, advancing to the final round in Atlanta and qualifying No. 1 in Chicago. That’s a positive sign for Hagan, who believes his team must stay near the top of the qualifying pack in the loaded class.
“It comes down to qualifying better, and we’ve got to stay focused on trying to get in those first three spots,” Hagan said. “That’s been the biggest thing for us. A (Don Schumacher Racing) car hasn’t won in a while and we have to get that figured out. We’re still playing catch up, but this team keeps working hard and we’ve kept our spirits up. These next (three) races are a grind and momentum is key, so you’ve really got to prepare yourself.”
Hagan is referencing the current four-race stretch, which started on a positive note for the veteran in Chicago. Continuing that momentum in Richmond will be difficult against a loaded field that includes DSR teammates Jack Beckman, Ron Capps and Tommy Johnson Jr., as well as points leader Courtney Force, defending world champ Robert Hight, who won in Chicago, and two-time 2018 winner J.R. Todd. But with DSR looking for its first Funny Car win since early March, Hagan hopes to be the one to come through in what he expects to be a memorable atmosphere.
“It was a fast track then and it’s going to be a fast track now, so it’s cool to be going back there,” Hagan said. “It’s nice to see the sport grow, and I’m sure this track and venue is going to be another hot spot on the tour. I remember when I couldn’t give out an autograph, so to see all the Hagan apparel walking around and out there showing their support, it’s pretty neat to see.”
Top Fuel standouts Tony Schumacher and Doug Kalitta both have wins at VMP, but everyone is hunting points leader Steve Torrence, who has three wins in 2018. Others to watch include Clay Millican, who has back-to-back wins, Leah Pritchett and defending world champ Brittany Force.
Jeg Coughlin and Jason Line have Virginia Pro Stock victories, and Coughlin just won in Chicago to become the eighth winner in nine races in the class. Everyone is trying to track down points leader Greg Anderson, who is also seeking his first win of the year in Virginia.
Pro Stock Motorcycle will race at the track for the first time since 1998, with the event marking the fifth of 16 for the two-wheeled class in 2018. Everyone is chasing points leader Andrew Hines and defending world champ Eddie Krawiec, who has two wins this season.
The E3 Spark Plugs NHRA Pro Mod Drag Racing Series presented by J&A Service makes the fifth of 12 stops in 2018 at Virginia Motorsports Park. The event also features thrilling competition in the NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series, showcasing the future stars of the sport.
Those in attendance will have the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to interact with a few of the most renowned names in drag racing during the NHRA Legends Tour. This will feature meet-and-greets, autograph sessions, and a variety of other activities. Legends scheduled to attend the Virginia NHRA Nationals include Joe Amato, Jim and Allison Lee, and Jim Yates.
As always, fans can interact with their favorite drivers as they’re granted an exclusive pit pass to the most powerful and sensory-filled motorsports attraction on the planet. This unique opportunity gives fans direct access to the teams, allowing them to see firsthand the highly-skilled mechanics service their hot rods between rounds, and get autographs from their favorite NHRA drivers.
Fans also will want to visit NHRA’s popular Nitro Alley and Manufacturers Midway, where sponsors and race vendors create a carnival atmosphere, with interactive displays, simulated competitions, merchandise, food and fun for the entire family.
NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series qualifying will feature two rounds at 2:45 and 5:15 p.m. on Friday, June 8, and the final two rounds of qualifying at 12:45 and 3:15 p.m. on Saturday, June 9. Final eliminations are scheduled for 12 p.m. on Sunday, June 10.