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Stewart Makes Top Fuel Debut at 55th Annual NHRA Gatornationals, Defending Champ Hagan Begins Funny Car Title Defense in Dodge//SRT Hellcat

The most anticipated debut of a Top Fuel driver in over a decade takes place on March 8-10 in the 55th annual NHRA Amalie Gatornationals when NASCAR Hall of Fame racer Tony Stewart competes in the Tony Stewart Racing (TSR) Dodge//SRT Direct Connection dragster in the opening event of the 21-race NHRA Mission Drag Racing Series.

Stewart, a former series champion in NASCAR, IndyCar and USAC competition, enters his fourth motorsports discipline at the highest level with the Top Fuel division in NHRA, as the Indiana driver makes his Top Fuel “rookie” showing in an 11,000-horsepower Dodge dragster at Gainesville Raceway.

“I’m trying to get through this learning curve right now with the Top Fuel dragster,” said Stewart, who takes the wheel of the TSR Dodge//SRT Direct Connection dragster after his wife Leah Pruett made the decision to sit out the 2024 campaign to start a family. Pruett will serve as strategist and driving coach for the TSR team. “This is probably one of the biggest challenges I have ever faced in my racing career. I’ve been through so many divisions and types of racecars that I have had to learn in my career, and this might be the toughest of all of them. Now just trying to figure these cars will be the most exciting part of it for me.

“I think it’s a huge advantage for a rookie in my situation. I have confidence in the team, and I know that they are way stronger at this point of the season than I am. It gives me a big confidence boost. It allows me to literally just work on all the little nuances in learning how to drive a new car. This is way different than anything I’ve ever done in motorsports in my life. It’s not like a NASCAR or IndyCar track where I can go and make 100 laps in a day easily. This is a situation where on a great day, you’re going to have four maybe five runs in testing, so every lap that we get is super important right now.”

While Stewart makes his initial Top Fuel appearance at Gainesville, his TSR teammate, veteran Matt Hagan, seeks his third consecutive Gatornationals Funny Car win in the nitro-burning TSR Direct Connection Dodge//SRT Hellcat when qualifying begins on Friday, March 8.

Hagan matched legends Don “Snake” Prudhomme and Kenny Bernstein last year by scoring a fourth NHRA World Funny Car Championship and the first world title for Tony Stewart Racing. Hagan recorded a season-high six NHRA national event victories in 2023 and now is just one win away from a coveted 50 career triumphs entering the 2024 NHRA Mission Drag Racing Series.

“It would be really unbelievable to win Gainesville a third time,” said Hagan. “It’s so hard to win any of these races and anything can happen. We’re going to work really hard to kick the season off well again. Gainesville has been a better track to me the last few years. We have a lot of data to work with from the last two years.

“We have a group that is well-oiled with a lot of chemistry, synergy and energy as we have proven with last year’s championship. I’m super confident in everything that my guys do. Tony is going to be learning to drive the dragster this season, so it’ll give us an opportunity to help those guys also if they need it. I have confidence in Tony and his TSR dragster team just like my Funny Car squad. I’d love to win Gainesville for a third time.”

Hagan and Stewart have tested their respective new TSR Direct Connection Dodge//SRT racecars in recent weeks in preparing for the NHRA Amalie Gatornationals, and will debut brand new 2024 TSR Dodge//SRT Direct Connection red-and-black race car liveries when the pair hit the strip at Gainesville.  

Nitro qualifying is scheduled for Friday, March 8, at 3 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. EST. Saturday qualifying takes place at 1:20 p.m. and 4 p.m. EST with Sunday’s final eliminations set for 10:30 a.m. EDT. 

This story was originally published on March 6, 2024. Drag Illustrated

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