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When Matt Hagan fires up the DieHard Dodge Charger R/T Funny Car for the first round of the 24th-annual FRAM/Autolite NHRA Nationals here Sunday at Infineon Raceway he will not be thinking about the driver in the other lane.

A 4.121-second, 302.96-mile-per-hour run in Friday’s second session earned the 28-year-old Don Schumacher Racing driver a first-round match, which is set for an 11 a.m. PT start, with 10th-qualifier Cruz Pedregon, who sits immediately ahead of Hagan in the 2011 NHRA Full Throttle Funny Car standings.

“I won’t be thinking about anything other than getting down the track,” said Hagan. “I can’t worry or be concerned about Cruz or whoever is in the other lane, regardless of the circumstances. I have to race the track and do my job.

“We made four solid runs in qualifying (4.151, 4.161 and 4.261 in the other three rounds) and Tommy (DeLago, crew chief) continues to give me a race car which can get down the track; we just have to keep this up tomorrow and throughout the rest of the season.

“The way we’ve been running just helps build confidence, not just for me, but for everyone on the DieHard team.”

The upswing in the team’s mood began with the Joliet, Ill. race and continued through last week’s final-round appearance in Denver.

“We brought out some different stuff for Chicago and began to turn things around,” said last year’s runner up in the Funny Car championship chase. “We’re feeling good, feeling positive. We’re going to go out tomorrow and have some fun racing!”

Matt Hagan, driver of the DieHard Dodge Charger R/T Funny Car, heads to Infineon Raceway here this weekend for the 24th-annual FRAM/Autolite NHRA Nationals looking to break into the winner’s circle for the first time in the 2011 NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series season.

Holding a solid fifth place in the Funny Car standings, the 28-year-old Don Schumacher Racing driver has been the runner up twice this year, but understandably wants to take home a trophy.

“We’ve been close, just missing first in Pomona and then last week in Denver,” said the Christiansburg, Va. native. “Tommy (DeLago, crew chief) and the Diehard guys gave me a great race car last week, but we just didn’t get it done against Force in the finals.

“The way the car performed all weekend in Denver, maybe the most difficult and challenging track on the circuit just makes me feel even more confident as we wrap up the regular season and get ready for the playoffs.”

Hagan trails Cruz Pedregon by less than three race-round wins for the fourth spot in the Funny Car standings with four races left to set the field for the playoffs (the top 10 drivers compete for the championship with their points reset for the final six races of the season). Last season, his second, Hagan took the fight to the final contest in Pomona (Calif.), finishing as the runner up to John Force, who won his 15th championship.

“Our goals remain winning races for DieHard, for Don Schumacher Racing and for everyone else associated with this team and to win the championship,” he said. “You race to win and even though I know you can’t win every race and lots of things can and do happen in drag racing, I won’t lie and say I’m not disappointed with having come so close, but not getting a win.

“We’ll turn it around and get that Wally; I’m sure.”

Last year here he lost a tight – .011 seconds – semifinal-round race with DSR teammate and eventual winner Ron Capps after having defeated Force and Del Worsham (now points leader in a Top Fuel dragster) in the first two rounds.

“We’d like another crack at John and hope to have the same results as last year,” he said. “But it doesn’t matter who we race – we have to beat whoever is in the next lane to move on.”

Matt Hagan, driver of the MOPAR Dodge Charger R/T Funny Car, dropped a final-round match with reigning NHRA Full Throttle Funny Car Champion John Force during today’s 24th-annual MOPAR Mile-High NHRA Nationals here at Bandimere Speedway.

Starting from the third position, the Don Schumacher Racing driver made four clean passes on the day, but fouled at the starting line (beating the green light by .012 seconds) against Force, negating a 4.328-second pass at 274.83 miles per hour (Force posted a 4.361-second lap at 285.23 mph).

“I don’t know what to say except it was my fault,” explained the chagrined Hagan. “We had him – Tommy (DeLago, crew chief) and the MOPAR/DieHard guys did a great job all weekend giving me a competitive car despite the difficult conditions – and I just didn’t get the job done.

“I can’t remember ever red lighting before and this was not the time to do it.”

The runner-up finish solidified Hagan’s hold on fifth place in the Funny Car standings – he increased his lead on Jeff Arend by 29 points which equates to just over one race-round win.

“Okay, that’s done and we’ll put it behind us,” he said about the disappointing finish. “We have to pick it up and get ready to race again in five days. No excuses; we just have to bear down and get that first victory.”

Today’s win by Force, his first of the season, means last year’s two nitro-champions have now recorded 2011 victories, while the two runners up – Hagan in Funny Car and Tony Schumacher in Top Fuel – are still looking for their first 2011 trip to the winner’s circle.

“I know Tony, who also lost in the finals today, wants that win and is doing everything to get it, just like we are,” he said. “We’ve both have cars capable of winning and have advanced to final rounds; we just have to close the deal.”

This was Hagan’s second runner- up finish in 2011, having opened the season with a final-round appearance in Pomona, Calif.

Matt Hagan put together four solid qualifying runs in gaining the third-starting spot for Sunday’s 32nd-annual MOPAR Mile-High NHRA Nationals here at Bandimere Speedway.

The 28-year-old pilot of the MOPAR/DieHard Dodge Charger R/T Funny Car was one of the only drivers to get down the track without issue in each session, despite the heat and altitude of the facility near Denver.

According to the Don Schumacher Racing driver, remaining this consistent will be the key to success on Sunday, which he will open by facing 14th-qualifier Melanie Troxel.

“We just have to stay the course and continue to run in the 4.20s,” he said. “We have to do what we’ve been doing, getting down the track and not beating ourselves.

“Tommy (DeLago, crew chief) kept gaining confidence and so did I as we progressed during these last two days.”

It was Friday’s second round run at 4.194 seconds at 300.06 miles per hour which secured the third position. He had started Friday with a 4.327 run at 283.49, and then today ran 4.283 at 289.76 and 4.238 at 293.41 to complete the qualifying performance.

“When this car throws you a bone like it has the last two days, you have to run with it,” said Hagan, who goes into Sunday’s event – which begins at 11 a.m. MT – fifth in the 2011 NHRA Full Throttle Funny Car standings.

Matt Hagan’s Dodge Charger R/T Funny Car sports a unique design for next weekend’s 32nd-annual MOPAR Mile-High NHRA Nationals as the Don Schumacher Racing driver will pilot the MOPAR/DieHard machine here at Bandimere Speedway.

“It’s great to drive the MOPAR Funny Car again this year,” said the 28-year-old from Christiansburg, Va. “We drove it last year, qualified first and sparked a lot of interest in our team.”

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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