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Carrying a paper-slim one-point lead into this weekend’s 47th-annual Automobile Club of ¬Southern California NHRA Finals, DieHard Advanced Gold/Rimco Dodge Charger R/T Funny Car driver Matt Hagan remains both optimistic and realistic about his chances of leaving Auto Club Raceway here as the 2011 NHRA Full Throttle champion.

According to the 28-year-old flopper pilot, solid preparation, based on staying with the program which has brought them to this point, is crucial to success.

“We just have to take this in stride and go race our race car,” said Hagan, who leads Don Schumacher Racing teammate Jack Beckman by the narrow margin and then is less than two rounds ahead of both Cruz Pedregon and Mike Neff. “We won’t do anything above and beyond what has gotten us to this point. We went to the finals here during the first race of the season, so we are not afraid of the track.

“It looks like the weather should be cool, which ought to make it a fast race, a driver’s race.”

Two keys for Hagan, who came into last year’s race with a narrow lead over eventual race winner and champion John Force, are not making mistakes and taking advantage of any opportunity.

“When you put pressure on yourself, you can make mistakes,” he explained. “You can’t stay up all night biting your nails. You make a mistake, you could provide your opponent with an opportunity. One of the ways to win this thing is to recognize an opportunity and take advantage of it when it happens, not give it away.

“Nobody lucked into this; all of the top teams have good crew chiefs, good crews and are good drivers. We all can’t win the race, but we have to be ready to take it if it is offered.

“A big part of being ready means being prepared; proper planning helps and I have all the confidence in Tommy DeLago (crew chief) in having us ready when it all begins Thursday.”

Generally, the Christiansburg, Va. native is ready for the decisive race; qualifying begins at 1 p.m. Thursday, followed by another single session Friday, two on Saturday and final eliminations Sunday.

“It’s tough for drivers and crews, with an entire season of battling coming down to one race, where anything can happen,” he said. “It’s tough to come down to who has a good day and who has a bad one, but it’s great for the fans.

In a true dogfight for the 2011 NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series championship, DieHard/Rimco Dodge Charger R/T Funny Car driver Matt Hagan reached the second round here today in the 11th-annual Big O Tires NHRA Nationals and heads into the final race of the season with a one-point lead in the standings.

A catastrophic mechanical failure ended Hagan’s day in his quarterfinal-round race against Cruz Pedregon, who is third in the Countdown to the Championship competition.

“We had a parts failure, which happens; it was nobody’s fault,” said the disappointed driver, who had taken the points lead by out qualifying Don Schumacher Racing teammate Jack Beckman. “I have a lot of confidence in my guys; we’ve been here before and we know what to do and what’s going to happen.

“It’s coming down to the last day and we’ll be ready. It’s a dog fight out there and we’re happy to be in it.”

Coming out of the fifth-starting spot, Hagan opened today’s contest by running 4.138 seconds at 307.09 miles per hour down The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway to defeat Tim Wilkerson and set up the match with Pedregon.

“This is the fourth consecutive race where we could have put some distance between us and the field,” said the 28-year-old Christiansburg, Va. native. “But the same thing can be said by everyone in the top group.”

Less than four rounds will separate the top six drivers in less than two weeks when the 47th-annual Automobile Club of ¬Southern California NHRA Finals begins. Beckman, at one point behind, Pedregon, 26, Mike Neff, 34, Robert Hight, 71, and Ron Capps, 72, who won today’s race, round out the group chasing Hagan.

Hagan, last year’s runner up in the Funny Car championship, is enjoying the overall experience.

“There’s no pressure,” he said. “It will be what it will be. I’m having fun. I didn’t win the race, which is disappointing, but we got out of the first round, which some other guys didn’t do and we’ll be back in two weeks to take a shot at the championship.”

 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.

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FC Mello Yello Points

Funny Car (Unofficial)

1. Courtney Force (546)
2. Jack Beckman (538)
3. Matt Hagan (487)
4. Tommy Johnson Jr. (436)
5. J.R. Todd (428)
6. Robert Hight (421)
7. Ron Capps (404)
8. Cruz Pedregon (357)
9. Shawn Langdon (301)
10. Tim Wilkerson (293)