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Pomona II Means It’s Force Vs. Hagan Time

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, November 14 2014

Matt Hagan will once again have to take on John Force in the fight for the NHRA Funny Car championship. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Garry Eller)

NHRA Funny Car point-leader Matt Hagan knows the road to his second world championship likely will run through John Force, drag racing’s consummate showman.

So, armed with a 21-point/two-rounds of racing lead heading into the season-ending 50th annual Auto Club NHRA Finals…it’s on with the show!

“It’s going to be one hell of a show, and I’m excited to see it myself,” said Hagan, anticipating this weekend’s squabble with Force at historic Pomona (Calif.) Raceway. “I have a lot to prove. I mean, John has got 16 (championships) and he can hang it up any time he wants to and walk away with a very successful career. I don’t plan on walking away with one championship. I plan on having multiple. So I have to dig deep and work hard and do whatever it takes to do that.”

Hagan vs. Force has morphed into a regular Mello Yello Drag Racing Series drama during four of the last five years. In 2010, Hagan won three national events but still finished second to Force by 42 points in a season that saw Brut go winless. Hagan rebounded to claim his first world title in 2011 at the expense of Don Schumacher Racing teammate Jack Beckman. Force added to his trophy haul last season by a final margin of 140 points/seven rounds over Hagan, who remains an unabashed admirer of his archrival.

“John brings the best out of me,” said Hagan, driver of the Mopar Express Lane/Rocky Boots Dodge Charger R/T. “I want to go up there and I want to cut 0.30-lights, but right now I’m cutting 0.50-lights. It makes me want to do more. But yeah, I think I definitely have a lot left in the tank. I’ve got a lot to show and a lot to give and a lot to prove. I think it’s just good racing for the fans. It all comes down to the fans. We’re showmen and we’re here to put on a show.”

Hagan and Force each have won three national events this season entering Round 6 of the NHRA’s Countdown to the Championship playoffs. While Force has posted a lopsided 5-1 record in those matches, the native Californian insisted he will not be overconfident at his home track.

“Well, I’m excited about it, but I don’t want to think about it. I want to get my head out of it,” Force said during a recent teleconference with Hagan. “If you wrap your head up in it, all the things that could go wrong or go right will go through your head, and none of that does any good.

“I’ve got a good race car and we’re going to give the fans what they want, and that’s a race. And we’re going to entertain them and at the end the champ will walk away. Whoever that is, I know we’ll congratulate one or the other, and that’s how I’m going to race it. If I start thinking, ‘I’ve got to beat this kid,’ you know what I’m saying, then it starts getting mental. I’ll wait until race morning _ Sunday morning _ and that’s when I’ll put on a game face and I’ll go after Matt Hagan, because I am chasing him.” Two rounds of qualifications in Funny Car, Top Fuel, Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle are scheduled for Friday.

Force has scored 15 of his record 141 career victories at Pomona, proud centerpiece of the NHRA universe and its most marketable superstar. “I know the Auto Club Raceway like the back of my hand,” said Force, driver of the Castrol GTX High Mileage Ford Mustang. “We’ve won it, we’ve lost there. When you lose, you learn. Hell, you learn more than when you win because you know what you can’t do. We’re excited about it because we’ve had a rough month-and-a-half.”

Force accepted and accelerated the resignation of crew chief Jimmy Prock on Oct. 22, with two races remaining in the playoffs. Prock immediately joined DSR as a member of Beckman’s crew, while Force appointed veteran John Force Racing tuner and longtime ally John Medlen as his crew chief. Force reached the final round during the NHRA Toyota Nationals on Nov. 2 at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, where he was trailered by Del Worsham.

“Well, I was really proud _ a load was dumped on John Medlen. You know what I mean?” said Force, a 65-year-old resident of Yorba Linda, Calif. “He had worked with Jimmy and Mike Neff, who’s my lead on every car that I own from the Top Fueler to my Funny Cars. He is my Austin Coil now. He’s taken over, and he has for the last two years.

“We had a tough competitor…Worsham bounced up there. He ran against Hagan and nailed him and then he nailed me. I could have used that round. Gave it everything I could squeeze out of the Christmas Tree _ everything. But man, you’re racing Worsham. He’s hopped-up. He’s got the Kalitta team behind him and the fist fight is getting ready to start. It ain’t a race just between me and Hagan. We’ve got to watch anybody _ he’s got to watch and I’ve got to watch who can take us out. This is great.”

Hagan, whose 13 career victories include two at Pomona, is putting his trust and largely his fate into the hands of tuner Dickie Venables. “What Dickie has…he’s very, very confident about the decisions that he makes,” said Hagan, a 31-year-old resident of Christiansburg, Va. “He doesn’t second-guess himself. He’s not up there worried about anything. I mean, hell, I worry about it more than he does. The decisions that he makes, he believes in them and it trickles down to our team and our core guys that are also making decisions on the car.

“It definitely keeps my morale up, as well. So I think Dickie, yes, is a great leader. But it’s not so much of a calming thing, it’s more of just a confidence thing. This is a team that’s only been assembled for two years, last year leading the points all the way pretty much most of the Countdown up until my crew chief got sick, and John came in and ran really hard. But Dickie has put a great race car under me this year. Now it’s come down to the wire here in Pomona. I think ‘hungry’ is the word that would best describe my team. We’ve grown together a little bit and we’re driven to go out and get this thing done.”

Force continues to chase Corporate America for additional sponsorship for his JFR juggernaut, which includes the Funny Cars driven by 2009 world champion/son-in-law Robert Hight and daughter Courtney and the Top Fuel dragster driven by daughter Brittany.

“I’m not just racing for this championship. I’m racing for this championship and the next 20 years,” Force said. “Right now, I’m building my team. I didn’t wait till Pomona (in February 2015) to start; I’ve already begun that. The outcome will be what it is.”

POINT STANDINGS

Top-10 heading into Friday’s first two of four rounds of qualifications for the 50th annual Auto Club NHRA Finals at Pomona Raceway, sixth and final event in the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series’ Countdown to the Championship:

Top Fuel _ 1. Tony Schumacher, 2,501; 2. Spencer Massey, 2,392; 3. J.R. Todd, 2,389; 4. Shawn Langdon, 2,367; 5. Doug Kalitta, 2,366; 6. Steve Torrence, 2,355; 7. Antron Brown, 2,324; 8. Khalid alBalooshi, 2,292; 9. Brittany Force, 2,239; 10. Richie Crampton, 2,238.

Funny Car_ 1. Matt Hagan, 2,510; 2. John Force, 2,489; 3. Courtney Force, 2,389; 4. Tommy Johnson Jr., 2,362; 5. Robert Hight, 2,360; 6. Del Worsham, 2,341; 7. Ron Capps, 2,313; 8. Alexis DeJoria, 2,300; 9. Tim Wilkerson, 2,259; 10. Cruz Pedregon, 2,206.

Pro Stock _ 1. Erica Enders-Stevens, 2,513; 2. Jason Line, 2,496; 3. Dave Connolly, 2,429; 4. Shane Gray, 2,402; 5. (tie) Jeg Coughlin Jr., 2,369; Allen Johnson, 2,369; 7. Vincent Nobile, 2,328; 8. Jonathan Gray, 2,312; 9. V. Gaines, 2,238; 10. Chris McGaha, 2,136.

Pro Stock Motorcycle_ 1. Andrew Hines, 2,607; 2. Eddie Krawiec, 2,515; 3. Matt Smith, 2,377; 4. Hector Arana Jr., 2,348; 5. Steve Johnson, 2,317; 6. Scotty Pollacheck, 2,299; 7. Hector Arana, 2,265; 8. John Hall, 2,253; 9. Angie Smith, 2,190; 10. Michael Ray, 2,134.

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, November 14 2014
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