When you reach the top of the mountain, not only do you enjoy the view, the last thing you want to do is head down.
That’s how defending NHRA Funny Car champ – and current points leader – Matt Hagan is approaching this weekend’s 35th annual Mopar Mile-High Nationals in the Denver suburb of Morrison, Colo.
Hagan climbed the Funny Car mountain with a strong run in the six-race Countdown to the Championship, eventually toppling 16-time champ John Force. It was Hagan’s second Funny Car title in four seasons, having done so the first time in 2011.
And Hagan has shown no signs of letting up in 2015.
Through the first 13 races of the 24-race Funny Car schedule, Hagan has a series-high four wins and leads second-ranked Ron Capps by a 178 points. He’s 189 points ahead of the third-place tie of Jack Beckman and Del Worsham by 189 points each, and leads fifth-ranked John Force by a whopping 223 points.
This weekend has special meaning for Hagan, as race sponsor Mopar is also one of the primary sponsors on his super-fast Dodge Charger Funny Car. Hagan has never won in Denver, but he’s hoping for a Rocky Mountain high by the time Sunday’s final eliminations are over.
“Obviously this is a huge race for Mopar and they’re one of my primary sponsors, so this is an event I want to win really bad for them,” Hagan said in an NHRA media release. “I just haven’t done it yet.
“It’s so tricky and you never know what you’re going to get with the challenges of this track and race. But everybody is in the same boat and I would love nothing more than to win it this year.”
This weekend is the start of the NHRA’s annual three-race “Western Swing.” A good run this weekend can give a team momentum it can ride through next week in Sonoma (Calif.), and two weeks from now in suburban Seattle.
A winner of 18 national events, Hagan has won four this season: the season opener at Pomona, as well as Phoenix, Englishtown and Bristol.
Those four wins are equal to what Hagan did last season – and there’s still 11 races left on the schedule.
He also finished second last week in Joliet, Ill., losing to Don Schumacher Racing teammate Tommy Johnson Jr.
This weekend’s host track, Bandimere Speedway, presents challenges to drivers not only because of the racing surface, but also because it’s the only track on the circuit that is a mile high in elevation (5,800 feet) and altitude.
“If I have any shot of getting it done (winning for the first time at Bandimere) this is going to be the year,” Hagan said. “We’ve put on a good (title) defense this year, and up to this point we’ve raced well and raced smart.
“We’ve capitalized on some mistakes and had some luck as well. But one mistake and things can change quickly. You just have to make good decisions and feel comfortable in the car. That confidence from my crew chief gives me confidence as a driver. Hopefully we can have that momentum built up and it all rolls downhill from there.”
But it won’t be easy for Hagan to break through, especially against John Force Racing, which has 11 combined career wins at Bandimere, including an event record six victories by John Force and three by teammate Robert Hight.
“This sport has, hands down, been the most humbling I’ve been a part of,” Hagan said. “You can do it all right and still lose. But I’ve got a great car underneath me and it all comes down to my crew chief and team. To come out and after a championship like this is huge, but you still have to prove it during the Countdown.
“We want to carry that momentum with us,” Hagan said. “We had a big points day in Chicago and we definitely want to keep all the momentum going over the next four to five races. In Denver you have to try some stuff and see if it works.”