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Sunday, August 4, 2013
Matt Hagan roars through Seattle

By Terry Blount
ESPN.com

KENT, Wash. -- Matt Hagan, the NHRA's version of The Incredible Hulk, is muscling up on his opponents again after a 2012 season when he was more like Funny Car's 100-pound weakling.

Hagan won for the fourth time this season Sunday at the NHRA Northwest Nationals, back in the powerful form he displayed as the 2011 champion.

"This year and last year are night and day," Hagan said. "This is the best team and crew I've ever been with and the most consistent crew I've ever had."

Matt Hagan
Funny Car points leader Matt Hagan strengthened his position with a victory Sunday at Pacific Raceways.

Morgan Lucas earned his first 2013 victory in Top Fuel Sunday and Vincent Nobile won his second consecutive event in Pro Stock.

But Hagan is the turnaround guy of the season. He should look back at last season as a drag racing Twilight Zone. It was a hot-rod version of a voodoo curse taking out a one-year lease on Hagan and his Dodge Charger Funny Car.

Now, he's back where he was in 2011 when he won his first Funny Car championship. In fact, he's better. Hagan won twice in the title season and three times when he was the championship runner-up to John Force in 2010.

Hagan has been the most consistent driver in the class for three of the past four seasons, except for 2012. He didn't win a race last season and didn't make the 10-driver Countdown playoff, finishing 11th in the standings.

Hagan says the big difference this season is new crew chief Dickie Venables, who replaced 2012 crew chief Tommy DeLago.

"Last year, we really struggled," Hagan said. "Nothing against [DeLago]. I still have lots of love for the guy, but I don't think his heart was in it where it needed to be, and it showed on the racetrack. We suffered all year long because of it. We were the weak link out there. Sometimes I just felt helpless."

All that's behind him now. It was a one-year aberration. Hagan is doing everything right. He extended his season points lead with a dominating performance at Pacific Raceways.

Hagan entered this event with a 27-point lead over Ron Capps, his teammate at Don Schumacher Racing. But Capps failed to qualify this weekend, his first DNQ in 34 races.

When the weekend ended, Hagan had clinched a spot in the Countdown and built a 117-point lead over Cruz Pedregon and 134 points over Capps.

"It was a huge points day," Hagan said. "Capps was nipping at our heels, so we put a whole race [worth of points] on the guy today. He's a teammate, but we're out here to win championships. The gloves come off."

Hagan is an intimidating guy, like the bouncer in the night club no one wants to challenge. He is a 30-year-old cattle rancher who looks a like he could play fullback for the Green Bay Packers and sounds like a host at the Grand Ole Opry.

He's the Virginia muscle man of the NHRA with a muscle car that no one wants to face.

Hagan faced Courtney Force, the defending champ in this event, in the semifinals Sunday. Based on her recent cover shot for The Body Issue of ESPN The Magazine, it was Lady Godiva versus the Hulk.

Hulk won, burning Courtney at the starting line to win the pass on a holeshot. Maybe it's Hagan who should take a turn in The Body Issue.

"I don't think so," he said. "I'm too shy, man. And I'm definitely not that pretty. But if you're physically healthy, you have an advantage on the racetrack."

Hagan ran 294.7 mph with a 4.17-second elapsed time in the final (along with a .036 reaction time) and easily defeated Bob Tasca III.

Heck, a four-second race at close to 300 mph is nothing compared to wrestling with his cattle on a weekly basis.

"You tangle with that 300-pound steer, you know you have your hands full," he said. "It doesn't hurt the workout stuff."

Hagan says he's also mentally stronger now after going through tough times last season.

"You learn from it and move on," he said. "The charisma and chemistry I have now with these guys is something I've never had before. It trickles down from Dickie because he's such a great leader."

With Venables as his guide, Hagan's the big man on the Funny Car block again. Just don't get too big.

"If that happens, I guess I'll switch to a football career,'' Hagan joked. "This sport can humble you, and it has choked me a couple of times. We just need to stay tough, keep focused and keep moving forward."