Commentary

Matt Hagan feeling the sting at zMax

Updated: April 15, 2012, 9:43 PM ET
By David Newton | ESPN.com

CONCORD, N.C. -- Defending NHRA Funny Car champion Matt Hagan fumbled with a water bottle in the zMax Dragway media center next to the picture of him and his team celebrating here in September.

It was killing him not being on the line Sunday, ready to launch his Aaron's Dream Machine to maybe another record as he did here seven months ago when he won en route to the season championship.

"It definitely hurts,'' said Hagan, who on Saturday failed to qualify for the field of 16 that makes the final round. "It's very humbling."

[+] EnlargeMatt Hagan
Jared Tilton/US PresswireDefending Funny Car champ Matt Hagan wasn't smiling much after failing to qualify for Sunday's eliminations.

But it wasn't so humbling that Hagan wished there was a rule as there is in NASCAR guaranteeing the top 35 drivers -- and their sponsors -- a spot in the race. It wasn't so humbling that he was ready to lobby for a provisional for former champions on those rare occasions when they have a bad qualifying round.

It was refreshing.

In a world in which everyone seemingly wants a mulligan, Hagan is having none of it. He's all about doing things the old-fashioned way.

Earn it, the way Robert Hight did by winning the Funny Car finale, Spencer Massey did by setting a national record (332.1 mph) in the Top Fuel Dragster final, the way Greg Anderson did by winning the Pro Stock division.

"No provisionals. No gimmes," Hagan said. "This deal of what we do, you either get it right or you go home. We're feeling that go-home part of it now.

"But I wouldn't feel right being out there just because somebody says you did something good last year. Last year is last year. This is this year."

Not all of Hagan's peers feel that way. Among those is Ron Capps, who would like to see the sanctioning body either lock in the top 10 in points or offer provisionals to past champions.

A few Sprint Cup drivers attending Sunday's event after racing on Saturday night in Texas agreed a rule to protect the top stars and their sponsors might benefit drag racing. After all, NHRA fans come to see their favorite drivers just as NASCAR fans do.

And sponsors pay a lot of money to be on the cars when the television cameras are on.

"It would be beneficial to have their big names in the race," Martin Truex Jr. said. "At the same time, when some of the big guys don't make the race that can make news, too.

"But I know if I was a competitor I'd like to see it [locks]. There's things that can happen that are out of your control."

Fans polled on Twitter overwhelmingly disagreed. They sided with Hagan -- that drivers should earn their way into the field.

Many NASCAR fans feel that way in their sport.

"From the sponsor standpoint, I totally understand," Hagan said. "From a competitor's standpoint, that's too much of a gimme. I wouldn't feel right knocking somebody out when you know they worked just as hard and had a chance to promote their sponsor just as much because of something you did previously."

Guaranteed spots came under fire in NASCAR a few weeks ago at Martinsville Speedway when David Reutimann brought out a late caution trying to keep the No. 10 Tommy Baldwin Racing Cup car he shares with Danica Patrick in the top 35. The caution changed the outcome of the race and brought into question whether cars should be guaranteed a spot.

That Patrick was part of the equation increased the spotlight on the debate. If the car is not in the top 35 when the series goes to Darlington in April she could miss the field.

In Hagan's world, so what?

It definitely is a setback. It's going to be a testimony to see what we're made of.

-- Matt Hagan

"I don't want anybody to give me anything," he said.

Thank you.

That doesn't mean it doesn't hurt, not only Hagan's ego but his chances of repeating. Getting only 10 points at a track where he earned 147 -- the max is 150 -- in September dropped him to 12th in points, 27 behind 10th place.

Only the top 10 make the six-race Countdown playoff after 17 races.

"It definitely is a setback," Hagan said after missing the show for the first time in his Funny Car career. "It's going to be a testimony to see what we're made of."

But having a top NHRA star miss an event won't kill the sport anymore than having a top NASCAR driver miss a race would kill that sport.

It just hurts them to watch. Just ask 15-time Funny Car champion John Force, who failed to qualify for the inaugural Four-Wide Nationals in 2008.

"I'm 62 years old, and I've won everything you can win -- every award, set track records and won at every racetrack," he said after Hagan failed to qualify. "When you don't qualify, it crushes you.

"When I don't qualify, it's painful. I don't show it. I'm a bull-jive talker. I'll look you right in the face and say, 'Oh, that's part of the deal!' But it guts you. You lay in bed at night because you're not part of the greatest show on earth."

But having a top star miss the show adds to the drama of qualifying for a sport that needs more drama. If all the stars and sponsors were guaranteed a spot the Saturday crowds might look like a qualifying crowd for NASCAR.

Sparse.

"That's what makes our sport so intense and brings the drama," Top Fuel star Antron Brown said. "It makes our sport genuine. This is nail-biting. You're on the edge of your seat. You don't get no do-over, no mulligans.

"It's like the NBA. Teams don't get provisionals to make the playoffs. That's what we do out here. That's the way it should be."

That's the way it was for Hagan on Sunday as he watched.

It hurt, just like losing is supposed to.

"You get no points, no anything," Hagan said. "You basically showed up and spent a bunch of money for nothing. It's pretty devastating, but it's only as bad as you make it.

"This will be a real test to our character."

David Newton | email

ESPN Carolina Panthers reporter