Hagan, Coughlin among bubble boys
For some drag racers in Indianapolis this weekend, the "Big Go" is the "Big Go or Go Home" for a spot in the NHRA Countdown.
Matt Hagan, the defending NHRA Funny Car champion, has one last chance to fight his way into the playoff. Jeg Coughlin Jr., a four-time Pro Stock champ, needs to move up to get a coveted top-10 spot for title contention.
And two veteran Top Fuelers -- Bob Vandergriff Jr. and Clay Millican -- will have to set aside their friendship to try to outrace each other for the final playoff spot.
All of them have to do it at the "Big Go" -- the prestigious Mac Tools U.S. Nationals at Lucas Oil Raceway. The NHRA's biggest event of the year now has the added intrigue of setting the six-race Countdown field in each class.
"The Countdown is doing exactly what the NHRA wanted it to do," Millican said. "The media is talking to two guys racing for the 10th spot in Top Fuel. If we didn't have a Countdown, you wouldn't be talking to us. But you can't overshadow the U.S. Nationals. This just adds to it."
Winning the U.S. Nationals, drag racing's Super Bowl event, is a dream come true for any driver. But a handful of competitors enter this weekend's show hoping to either hang on to a top-10 playoff spot or bump someone else out.
Vandergriff is 10th, only three points ahead of Millican.
"I almost feel like I'm in a marathon and I'm trying to run the last mile with a pulled hamstring," Vandergriff said. "Last year we lost in the second round at Indy. We would have made it in the Countdown had we won that round. I feel like the place owes us one. Clay can't catch us if we win rounds."
Millican, 46, is trying to make the Countdown for the second time. He considers Vandergriff a good friend, but he knows they won't be friends come race time.
"There isn't a more fierce competitor out here than Bob," Millican said. "He is fun off the track, but we both are pretty dang serious when we put the helmet on."
Vandergriff, 47, was an all-state high school football player growing up in La Habra, Calif., so he has a well-honed competitive nature.
"Once the game started, I hated the other guy I was lined up against," Vandergriff said. "I wanted to rip his head off. I still have that same mentality, but it's hard to turn off being a friend with Clay. He's just such a good guy."
Good guy or bad, it doesn't matter now. You have to beat whoever stands in your way. Each round of racing is worth 20 points, so it's likely a playoff spot will come down to which driver wins the most rounds Sunday.
Hagan is 11th in the Funny Car standings, 19 points behind Bob Tasca. If Hagan falls short, it will mark the second time the defending Funny Car champ failed to make the playoff the following season. Cruz Pedregon missed the 2009 Countdown after winning the 2008 title.
"We've had a horrible year," Hagan said. "No one expected us to be in this position. It's been very humbling and I've had to learn to deal with it. It's been tough. We all have egos out here. Sometimes it's a helpless feeling.
"But I know our team is capable of doing this. That why we're all still together and nobody has jumped ship."
Hagan, 29, is winless this season, but his team has made a charge up the standings in the past few races. Hagan reached the final round at Sonoma and Seattle. He reached the semifinals at Brainerd, Minn., in the last event.
"We've finally found a combination that the car has responded to," Hagan said. "It's our fault if we don't get it done. It's still a big hill to climb. We have to step up to the plate and knock it out of the park."
Coughlin, 42, knows the feeling. He has hit a lot of drag racing home runs in his career.
Coughlin is the most accomplished drag racer among the guys fighting to make the playoff. He won four Pro Stock titles from 2000 to 2008 and made every Countdown before sitting out the 2011 Pro Stock season.
Now he's two points behind V. Gaines for the last playoff spot. Only 21 points separates Shane Gray in eighth from Coughlin in 11th.
"The competitiveness in the sport now is second to none," Coughlin said. "And Pro Stock is a class separated by 10 thousandths of a second, so it can be anyone's game. But this is what we sign up for. It's a make-or-break situation."
Larry Morgan, ninth in the Pro Stock standings and only 18 points ahead of Coughlin, said he'll try not to do much scoreboard watching this weekend on the other guys in the playoff battle.
"You do pay attention to it," Morgan said. "But you have to keep your nose to the grindstone. Each of us better have our act together. It's just so tight, and qualifying points mean so much now.
"For my team, we have to get our heads out of our rear ends on the front part of the track. We're terrible there. We have to be prepared on every part of the car."
Only 39 points separate the four bubble drivers in Funny Car, from Jeff Arend in ninth to Tim Wilkerson in 12th.
"We're all in the same boat here," said Wilkerson, who won at Indy in 2003. "We all knew going into this season that two or three good cars wouldn't get in. Lady Luck plays a lot into what happens. Each car can run as good as the other at any given time. If will come down to who doesn't make any mistakes."
And for all of them, this "Big Go" is the "Big Go or Go Home."