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 Matt Hagan qualified his DieHard/Rimco Dodge Charger R/T Funny Car fifth and thus will go into Sunday’s 11th-annual Big O Tires NHRA Nationals here as the leader in the 2011 NHRA Full Throttle Countdown to the Championship standings.

Hagan banked a 4.093-second pass at 310.05 miles per hour in Friday’s second qualifying session to earn a first-round match against 12th-qualifier Tim Wilkerson in the final eliminations which begin at 11 a.m. PDT.

“We’ve got a really tough draw for that first round,” explained the 28-year-old Don Schumacher Racing driver. “Tim is good in the heat and in the cool weather, but I have a lot of confidence in this DieHard Funny Car heading into tomorrow’s race.

“We made it down the track three out of four times in qualifying and are carrying a lot of momentum into the race.”

The lone off-pace lap on The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway came in today’s fourth and final session. He opened Friday with a 4.142-second pass, quickest of the session, followed by the 4.093 lap in the evening run before posting a 4.130 in today’s earlier round.

“We went for it this afternoon and took a shot at the top spot because, as Tommy (DeLago, crew chief) said, the worst we could do was end up fifth,” said about a tire-smoking 5.369 lap. “We just have to put four good runs together tomorrow.”

Hagan’s qualifying points enabled him to pass DSR teammate Jack Beckman and begin Sunday with a one-point lead. Mike Neff, 13 points behind, Cruz Pedregon, 45, and Robert Hight, 50, finish out the top five in the standings, all within three rounds of the lead.

Sitting less than a round out of first place heading into this weekend’s 11th-annual Big O Tires NHRA Nationals here, the second-to-last race of the season, does not mean additional pressure for Matt Hagan as he prepares to drive the DieHard Advanced Gold Dodge Charger R/T Funny Car down The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

According to Hagan, who trails Don Schumacher Racing teammate Jack Beckman by five points in the 2011 NHRA Full Throttle Countdown to the Championship standings, “I don’t feel any extra pressure this week than I do on any race day. I am very confident in Tommy DeLago (crew chief), my team and myself. I just have to do my job, driving the car to the best of my abilities. I could bite my nails all day long and at the end of the day, what do you have – a hand that hurts; it won’t do you any good in the race car.

“Each one of my guys on the DieHard/Rimco team has to do their jobs as they’ve done all year. The pressure is on the crew chiefs to figure out the tracks and the weather. Again, I have all the confidence in Tommy – he’s gotten us here!”

Hagan began the six-race Countdown in sixth place, 70 points off the lead. He has already gone around three other drivers while making up 65 points in the first four playoff contests.

“We have a very competitive team and we’ll do all right,” said the 28-year-old Christiansburg, Va. native. “Nobody’s going to hand this thing to you; you have to work hard and earn it.”

Hagan was the runner up at last year’s race here to take the points lead into the season’s finale, finishing second in the championship when 15-time-winner John Force won the Pomona race.

“Every year is different; you learn from your successes and your mistakes,” Hagan said discussing how the 2010 finish prepared the DieHard/Rimco team for this year’s playoffs. “You try to pull from the knowledge you’ve learned along the way and use the previous situations to prepare yourself. We learned a lot about this sport during last year’s Countdown and during this season so far – and I think we’re a better team for it!

“You never know what’s going to happen. If at the end of the day you can look in the mirror and say I did all I could do, then you can go to bed and sleep well.”

Matt Hagan drove the DieHard Advanced Gold Dodge Charger R/T Funny Car into today’s second round of the 27th-annual NHRA Arizona Nationals here at Firebird International Raceway.

Having qualified sixth, Hagan used a 4.258-second pass at 287.29 miles per hour to dispatch 11th-qualifier Todd Lesenko, who was making his first national-event appearance. Event-runner-up and Don Schumacher Racing teammate Johnny Gray then topped Hagan in the second round.

“We race heads up at DSR,” said Hagan, who is in a tight fight for the championship, while Gray is not in the Countdown. “That’s the way it should be and I’m glad about it. I know Johnny and his team were working just as hard to win in the finals (against DSR teammate Jack Beckman, whose win propelled him five points ahead of Hagan); it just didn’t work out that way.”

The first-round win, coupled with the outcomes of the other 2011 NHRA Full Throttle Countdown to the Championship contenders’ runs, resulted in the 28-year-old driver finishing the weekend second in the standings.

“It was a hot, tough weekend, where it seemed everyone was struggling,” said the Christiansburg, Va. native. “Getting out of the first round was crucial – as it is every weekend.

“We had some success, but we have to win to keep the pressure on in the Countdown. We have to stay focused on our jobs and our goals and continue to work hard.

“I believe there is still a lot I can do as a driver to be better and I will. The book has already been written; we just have to read it.”

Beckman’s victory tightened up the Funny Car standings, so heading into the penultimate race of the season in less than two weeks on the Strip at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, 58 points – less than three race rounds – separate the top five: Beckman, Hagan, Mike Neff, Cruz Pedregon and Robert Hight.

Matt Hagan – now less than a round out of the championship lead –  will drive his DieHard Advanced Gold Dodge Charger R/T Funny Car from the sixth starting spot in Sunday’s 27th-annual NHRA Arizona Nationals here at Firebird International Raceway.

Three points – less than one race round – will separate him from 2011 NHRA Countdown to the Championship leader Mike Neff when the 28-year-old Don Schumacher Racing driver squares off against 11th-qualifier and rookie Todd Lesenko in the first round of final eliminations, which are scheduled to begin at 11 a.m. CDT.

“We just have to concentrate on getting down the race track in this heat,” he said. “We have to treat this round like any other, regardless of who’s in the other lane. We have to take Todd as seriously as if we were facing one of the top Countdown drivers. Anyone who was able to qualify here under these conditions has earned my respect and that of this DieHard team; it’s been a difficult couple of days here in the desert.”

Hagan opened Friday’s qualifying with a 4.409-second pass, followed by the 4.294 run at 264.55 miles per hour in the evening session which earned him the sixth spot. Today’s two trips down the scorching 1,000-foot strip were at 4.825 and 4.329 seconds.

“The key, as it often is, was Friday’s run in the cooler weather,” explained the racer who runs a cattle farm in Christiansburg, Va. when not on the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series circuit. “Track temperatures dropped to close to 100 degrees, well below what we saw earlier that day and today.

“On race day, the track will be real tricky, with temperatures approaching 120, 130 and above. It will be anybody’s ball game Sunday – we just want it to be ours!”

Matt Hagan piloted the DieHard Advanced Gold Dodge Charger R/T Funny Car  into the number-three-starting position – and first in the NHRA Full Throttle Countdown to the Championship standings –  for Sunday’s 27th annual Auto-Plus® NHRA Nationals here at Maple Grove Raceway.

The 28-year-old Don Schumacher Racing driver opened Friday’s qualifying with a class-leading 4.076-second lap at 308.50 miles per hour using data from last year’s win – including a record-setting pass – at the Southeastern Pennsylvania track.

He followed with a 4.012 run at 316.67 mph to set up a first-round match with 14th-qualifier Blake Alexander during final eliminations, which begin at 11 a.m. EDT.

“We feel good and are having a good weekend,” said the Christiansburg, Va. native who starts Sunday’s race on top of the standings for the first time in 2011. “We need to go rounds tomorrow and in the remaining races. It’s nice to put up low numbers and to maybe lower the record (which he set two weeks ago in Charlotte at 3.995 seconds), but winning is more important.

“We need a good game plan for the rest of the Countdown and it will be more about winning rounds and races than setting records.”

Being quickest in Friday’s two rounds, as well as grabbing the points for qualifying third, allowed Hagan to pass Mike Neff in the standings as race day commences.

“There’s still a lot of racing left,” he said. “We’re not done. We have to keep on working and racing; we can’t take anything for granted – and we won’t!”

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FC Mello Yello Points

Funny Car (Unofficial)

1. Matt Hagan (127)
2. Robert Hight (101)
3. Jack Beckman (81)
4. Ron Capps (78)
5. Jonnie Lindberg (51)
6. J.R. Todd (49)
6. Tim Wilkerson (49)
8. Cruz Pedregon (48)
9. Courtney Force (36)
10. Shawn Langdon (32)
10. Tommy Johnson Jr. (32)
10. Del Worsham (32)