Matt Hagan wants chance at redemption
On Tuesday at his Virginia farm, Matt Hagan was taking care of his 300 head of cattle and attending to a cow with pinkeye.
Two days earlier in Charlotte, he was giving his Funny Car rivals a big black eye.
He started the 2011 NHRA Countdown with the best possible outcome, winning the first playoff race, setting a national record with the first sub-4-second pass and qualifying No. 1.
Quite a contrast to the way Hagan ended the 2010 NHRA Countdown with the worst possible disappointment -- a disappointment of historic proportions.
At age 27 in only his second Funny Car season, Hagan went to the final event at Pomona, Calif., with a 38-point lead over NHRA legend John Force. But Hagan lost in the first round and Force won the event to claim his 15th Funny Car crown.
"I'm not gonna lie," Hagan said in his deep Southern drawl. "I still think about it a couple of times a week, if not almost every day. To get that close this early in my career and have the championship slip through my fingers, it was a tough deal."
And it's been a tough season for Hagan and his crew on the Don Schumacher Racing Dodge flopper. Hagan was winless in 2011 heading to zMax Dragway before experiencing a dream weekend.
He broke the 4-second barrier with a qualifying run of 3.995 seconds to win the pole. He also made the fastest Funny Car pass ever at 1,000 feet (322.27 mph) in Sunday's eliminations while winning the event over points leader Mike Neff.
"It was like being in a fairy tale, right down to the perfect ending," Hagan said. "It doesn't get any better than that. It gives me confidence, but I'm the prime example of how it doesn't matter until the last day. Anything can happen out there."
The unthinkable happened in November when a faulty piston ended Hagan's day early, forcing him to sit and watch Force take the title away from him.
"I'm a laid-back guy, but the pressure on the last day was huge," Hagan said. "If it was anybody except John Force, I probably wouldn't have been so nervous. I felt I couldn't make a mistake. It was like I needed to hit a home run and hit a two-hopper."
You don't go through something like that without it changing you. Hagan and crew chief Tommy DeLago believe it changed them for the better.
"Last year was a great character-builder for our team, and we've tried to learn from it," DeLago said. "For me, I changed my way of thinking about how I was going to race this season. I felt we had to try a different approach."
DeLago, 42, wanted the team to be at its best when it mattered most, the strategy Chad Knaus has used in leading Jimmie Johnson to five straight Sprint Cup titles.
"I kind of look at it like I'm in college," DeLago said. "You study all year before the final exam. Well, we tested most of the year and we've tried to make progress and step up our game when it was time to do it."
In other words, be strong for the Countdown.
"We don't even use that word," DeLago said. "Our goal this year wasn't to win the championship. Our goal was to get better and make progress and not worry about what we can't control.
"What we want to do is separate these last six events into six separate battles. Each one is kind of like a little war for me."
It's another way of saying this old cliché: "Take 'em one at a time." But it's a way for DeLago and Hagan to focus on the moment.
"We're not looking at the big picture," Hagan said. "We trying to think small and go week to week. I thought so much about the Countdown last year that it got in my head a little bit. Now I'm not worrying about what I can't control."
Hagan's record-setting win at Charlotte moved him from sixth to second in the Countdown, only 22 points (about one round of racing) behind Neff.
"It's only one race," DeLago said. "Don't get me wrong. It was great, but one race doesn't prove anything. We haven't accomplished anything yet."
Now Hagan goes to Texas Motorplex this weekend in Ennis, the place where he earned his last of three victories of 2010.
"That track has been good to me," Hagan said. "Look, I have a fast car and it can do great things, but at other times it can rip your heart out.
"It's a double-edge sword. The car is fast, and that can play into our hands in the cooler weather. But it also can be a little wild. Tommy has his hands full, and he deserves all the credit when it runs well."
If you live in the past you'll stay in the past. We closed that door. We don't harp on the Countdown. We'll just do our thing.” -- Matt Hagan
DeLago said the difference between winning and losing is closer now than ever. Nine different drivers have won in the first 17 events this year.
"I've been doing this for 17 years, and this is the best racing I've ever seen," DeLago said. "The competition level is unreal. Almost every finish is so close.
"It's so hard to dominate. That's why I've been so impressed with Neff. He's doing both jobs [crew chief and driver] and he's been the class of the field."
Neff has plenty of help in the super-team operation at John Force Racing. He took over the driving duties for the team Force won the championship with last year. Force moved to daughter Ashley Force Hood's car. She took the year off to become a mom.
And Hagan has lots of resources to lean on at DSR, an organization with four Funny Car teams. Teammates Jack Beckman and Ron Capps, both winners this year, also are in the Countdown.
All three DSR drivers are capable of winning the title. Capps is a three-time runner-up. Beckman has finished in the top five in each of the previous four seasons.
But Hagan is the man who experienced the pain of the 2010 championship slipping away on the final day.
"You have to learn from it and grow from it," Hagan said. "I won't put that kind of pressure on myself again.
"A lot of things about me and Tommy are different now. If you live in the past you'll stay in the past. We closed that door. We don't harp on the Countdown. We'll just do our thing."
Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.