Matt Hagan joined drag racing royalty Sunday at the NHRA In-N- Out Burger Finals when he secured his fourth career NHRA Camping World Funny Car championship in the Tony Stewart Racing (TSR) Direct Connection Dodge//SRT Hellcat machine.
Hagan, a six-time NHRA national event winner this year, joined legends John Force, Don Prudhomme and Kenny Bernstein as the only four-time Funny Car World Champions with his second-round finish in the final race in the 21-event NHRA national tour.
Leah Pruett, Hagan’s TSR teammate, nearly made it a “double up” TSR Dodge//SRT championship for the Direct Connection team when she advanced to the final round against Doug Kalitta in a “winner takes the title” finale. Unfortunately, Pruett was defeated by Kalitta, 3.673 to a 3.720, earning the runner-up spot in the TSR Dodge//SRT Direct Connection Top Fuel dragster.
Hagan entered the season-ending race in Pomona, California, with a 15-point lead in the “Countdown” for the Funny Car title. After qualifying fourth (3.869 seconds) in the 16-car field, Hagan defeated Alex Laughlin in the opening round and lost a wild second round matchup with Blake Alexander in which both drivers smoked the tires. With his chief challengers – Bob Tasca III and Robert Hight – also losing in the second-round, Hagan notched his fourth World title and first for Tony Stewart Racing.
It was high drama for Hagan after his defeat to Alexander, as he had to watch with the title on the line as Hight lost to eventual race winner Chad Green, securing the Funny Car crown for Hagan. At the race conclusion, Hagan scored 2,628 points to Hight’s 2,616 and Tasca’s 2,611 in the season-long fight which began in March at the NHRA Gatornationals.
“What a season for Matt Hagan and his Tony Stewart Racing (TSR) Direct Connection Dodge//SRT Hellcat in the 2023 NHRA Camping World drag racing series!” said Tim Kuniskis, Dodge Brand Chief Executive Officer – Stellantis. “In capturing six NHRA Funny Car races, Matt drove his Sublime TSR Direct Connection machine to his fourth NHRA World Championship. The TSR crew, led by Dickie Venables, Mike Knudson and Alex Conaway, has done a sensational job in giving Matt a strong machine all season. The Funny Car division in NHRA is so competitive and it takes experience, knowledge and consistency to claim a World title. Matt and his squad have shown all of those traits this year. The TSR Dodge//SRT Hellcat is a great example how our Dodge roster of machines and Direct Connection performance parts are a winning combination.”
“I was doing some praying today entering the race,” said Hagan after the race. “I hadn’t prayed to my mom since we lost her this year. And I said, ‘I don’t know what you are doing up there. But I sure could use some help today from you and my brother.’ You hate to see someone go out in the second round to win a championship. I don’t wish losing on anyone. That’s not my style of racing.
“But it was the body of work that we did all year with Dick Venables, Mike Knudson, Alex Conaway and the whole TSR Dodge Direct Connection team. We were in position to win the championship if everyone went out in the same round as us. And the cards fell that way for us. We won six races and twice were runner-up which should give you a good chance for the title. It’s incredible that Tony Stewart can be the World Champion in his second year in NHRA. He has put together an outstanding team. Some team owners have put in millions and millions of dollars in NHRA racing and never won a championship. It speaks volumes that the leader Tony is and the people he has assembled around him.”
“I’m so proud of Matt,” said Tony Stewart, TSR team owner. “He is one of the best cheerleaders for a racing team that I know. He never lets his crew guys get down. He makes my job so much easier as a car owner. He is my little, big brother. To lock this championship already in the Tony Stewart Racing Nitro history, this is an unbelievable day. And we had a chance with Leah’s team too. They did an awesome job as well. Thanks to every one of our partners, crew, support workers and fans, we greatly appreciate all of the effort for the 2023 season.”
Pruett, with victories at Norwalk and Dallas in 2023, proved to be a serious contender throughout the six-race “Countdown” and nearly scored her first NHRA Top Fuel title Sunday by defeating former World Champions Tony Schumacher, Antron Brown and Steve Torrence in the earlier rounds.
In the final, Pruett needed to defeat Doug Kalitta to clinch the championship, but she came up short with a 3.720 to Kalitta’s 3.673. Pruett finished third in the Top Fuel points behind Kalitta and Torrence.
“The Pomona finals has lived up to every ounce of being the Mac Daddy race,” said Pruett, who began her drag racing career at age eight at the Pomona track. “We had an opportunity to run for a championship in the final round. The pressure was on for everyone to make it to the final. We knew we had to get to the final round to win the championship. Racing Steve (Torrence), who I respect immensely, in the semifinals was huge. I continued to have laser focus and so did the team into our final round against Doug (Kalitta).
“I want it to be known that our heads are not low today as our TSR Dodge Direct Connection team performed like champions. Doug has deserved the title for a long time and today he earned it against us. I’ve never felt more deserving of my team as I did today. I’m proud to be the only Dodge car in that Top Fuel fight. And we went right down to the final race of the end for the championship. That’s all you can ask for as a racer.”
Hagan and all of the NHRA Camping World Champions will be honored Monday, Nov. 13, in the 2023 NHRA Camping World Awards Ceremony at the Pechanga Resort and Casino in Temecula, California.
The 2024 NHRA Mission Foods Drag Racing Series will kick off March 7-10 with the NHRA Gatornationals at Gainesville (Fla.) Raceway.