Matt Hagan has does not have a green hat this year, but his low qualifier drought could end in Brainerd after the two-time Mello Yello champion drove to a 3.890, 328.46 in his Dodge Hellcat Charger to lead the field on Friday in Brainerd. In a thrilling session that produced nine runs in the three-second zone, no one was quicker than Hagan, who had earlier put together a competitive 4.004 to kick off the weekend.
“We’ve got a hell of a race car right now,” said Hagan, whose last four starts have produced a win in Epping, a runner-up in Sonoma, and a semifinal in Seattle two weeks ago. “The car launched hard early and got a lot of wheel speed and I just let it eat. I try not to over-drive these cars. There is a fine line. I knew it was a good run, but I wasn’t sure it would be good enough for No. 1.”
Hagan has never won in Brainerd, but he was a runner-up in 2013 and 2016. With the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals and the Countdown to the Championship playoffs on the horizon, Hagan fully understands that it’s time for any team to put their best foot forward if they want to be a serious championship contender.
“My confidence is there, and the car is running good, and we need to put this Mopar in the winner’s circle this weekend,” said Hagan. “We’re coming off a bunch of semifinals and finals and if you throw Denver out, we’ve been making a lot of great laps and that builds confidence. Dickie [Venables, crew chief] has done a lot with combination and we’ve got a pretty wide window to tune from right now. The car responds to changes, even if we take a big swing at it. I’d like to move ourselves up to fourth or fifth before the Countdown starts. We need to make some sort of a move and then we need to win two or three races in the Countdown to win the championship but that’s’ getting ahead of ourselves. We just need to concentrate on winning this race on Sunday.”
Hagan is leaving Brainerd tonight with the quickest time slip in the Funny Car class, but his spot at the top is far from secure. Teammate Jack Beckman is just a hundredth of a second behind with a 3.908 in his Infinite Hero Dodge, and championship leader Robert Hight is third with a 3.924 from the Auto Club Camaro. All told, there are ten drivers in the threes including Jonnie Lindberg, who posted a solid 3.96 in Jim Head’s Mustang. Lindberg is making his first appearance in more than a month.
The leader after Q1, John Force came to Brainerd fresh off his historic 150th win two weeks ago in Seattle, the 16-time champ promptly added three bonus points to his total with a 3.993 in his Peak Chevrolet Camaro in Q1. Force was one of just two Funny Car drivers in the threes during Friday’s opening round, along with Tommy Johnson Jr., at 3.998. Force later improved to a 3.963, which is good for the No. 8 spot. A lot has happened to Force since he scaled the fence in Seattle to celebrate his most recent win. The Peak team visited Summit Racing Equipment Raceway Park in Norwalk to compete in the huge Night of Fire event, and then his crew double-timed back to their shop in Brownsburg to put the finishing touches on a newly front-halved chassis for Brainerd. Based on early returns, the move seems to be a wise one.
Not everyone was thrilled with their performance on Friday. Reigning champ J.R. Todd and two-time champ Cruz Pedregon both went O-for-2 and will look to improve on Saturday to break into the top half of the field.