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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!”

Matt Hagan, driver of the DieHard Advanced Gold Dodge Charger R/T Funny Car would like to leave here Sunday night following the 27th annual Auto-Plus® NHRA Nationals the same way he did after last year’s race – holding first place in the Countdown to the Championship standings.

Last year at Maple Grove Raceway the Don Schumacher Racing driver used a record-setting run (4.011 seconds) to qualify on the pole and a runner-up finish to move around John Force. This year, the 29-year-old flopper pilot comes to Southeastern Pennsylvania four points – less than a round – behind Force’s teammate Mike Neff.

“We made progress and closed the gap last week in Dallas when we beat Zippy (Neff) in the first round,” said the Christiansburg, Va. native. “But we let an opportunity slip away by going out in the second round.”

A return to the hills of Southeastern Pennsylvania renews the team’s optimism.

“I hope it cools down this weekend, which it’s supposed to do, because Tommy has some great data for Maple Grove,” explained Hagan, who broke his national record earlier this month by running 3.995 seconds in Charlotte, the first sub-four-second 1,000-foot lap in history. “We could go for it again; those 20 bonus points would be a great thing to add to our total.

“You have to be greedy and go for everything this time of the year. You have to grab every advantage if you want to win the championship and that is exactly what we are gunning for.”

Hagan picked up his first win of the 2011 NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series season at the Charlotte event – first of six Countdown races – which had moved him from sixth to second in the standings around DSR teammates Ron Capps and Jack Beckman as well as Cruz Pedregon.

A sharp eye will see something new when Matt Hagan rolls up to the starting line for Friday’s first qualifying run here at the 27th-annual Auto-Plus® NHRA Nationals – his new DieHard Advanced Gold Dodge Charger R/T Funny Car.

Hagan, sitting four points off the lead in the standings coming into this weekend’s race at Maple Grove Raceway outside Reading, will showcase the revised Funny Car look for the remaining four races, all Countdown to the Championship events.

“I’m thrilled that we can help our great supporters at DieHard introduce their new battery,” said the 28-year-old Don Schumacher Racing driver. “They tell me it’s the best version of the Advanced Gold battery yet and we hope to put it in the winner’s circle as early as this Sunday!”

Debuting at Sears in December, the DieHard Advanced Gold battery offers more power and longer life than its predecessor. In addition, genuine AGM Technology (absorbed matt glass technology) means no acid can spill from this sealed, maintenance-free battery.

Last October, Hagan qualified here at 4.011 seconds to set the then NHRA 1,000-foot elapsed-time record en route to reaching the race’s final round. (He has since broken this record with a 3.995-second pass, first sub-four-second one, earlier this month in Charlotte.) Hagan has four-career Funny Car wins behind the wheel of his DieHard Dodge Charger R/T.

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FC Mello Yello Points

Unofficial NHRA Mello Yello Countdown to the Championship Standings:

Funny Car

1 Jack Beckman 278
2 Tommy Johnson Jr 276
3 Matt Hagan 238
4 Tim Wilkerson 179
5 John Force 173
6 Ron Capps 159
7 Alexis DeJoria 154
8 Bob Tasca III 149
9 J.R. Todd 141
10 Robert Hight 100