Matt Hagan came out of nowhere because we (or I, because it's unfair to lump everyone else into this) stopped paying attention. The Mopar Express Lane team has been better than everyone else during the NHRA Countdown to the Championship by a wide margin both on paper and on the drag strip and now controls its destiny just as much as Funny Car leader Robert Hight.
Hagan should not come out of nowhere on a drag strip anymore than he should when he barges into an NHRA media center. And yet, the Dickie Venables-led team managed to take the category by surprise after he won in the AAA Texas NHRA FallNationals. He followed it up with a win at the Dodge NHRA Nationals in Las Vegas two weeks later. His biggest rival, Hight, stunned everyone by going from 10-seed to champion all those years ago.
Hagan may rival Hight for storybook endings if he pulls off a title Sunday. Venables struggled to reel in his superpowered Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat when new track prep procedures came to NHRA Drag Racing in 2017, but at some point those struggles became overblown. The measure of that is irrelevant if only because now Venables, one of the greatest living crew chiefs, has an opportunity to take his team and his driver to yet another title.
The Charger tuned by Venables has made it down the track quicker than 4.1 seconds 83.3 percent during the playoffs. That's better than every Funny Car other than the one driven by Bob Tasca III (yes, even better than the one tuned by his friend Rahn Tobler, which frankly is feat and a gift from the drag racing gods). It is also one of the fastest, averaging a 3.913-second elapsed time, staying within .002-second of the monster tuned by Jimmy Prock.
Then there is Hagan, who has yet to get his due as one of the best wheelmen in the category. He has averaged a .0684-second reaction time during the postseason, which has less to do with crunch time and everything to do with routine. Hagan averages a .0748-second light during the 2019 season as a whole. This is who he is -- one of the best in the business whenever the carbon fiber body manages to squeeze over him.
Hagan must go two rounds further than Hight to win the championship. The earliest they can meet is the semifinals, which would become a championship-deciding round if Jack Beckman exits before then. The mission for the team is simple: Win. If they win the race, they go home with the trophy.
The team has been doing it for a month. The only difference between Dallas, Las Vegas and Pomona? It'll stop being a surprise if they win Sunday.