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A combination of new things – a new body, a new sponsor and a new approach – being rolled out this weekend for the 31st annual NHRA Southern Nationals here at Atlanta Dragway provides Matt Hagan with optimism for both the race and the remainder of the season.

Hagan will drive a unique black-and-orange Autolite/DieHard Dodge Charger R/T Funny Car for the Atlanta race. In addition, DirtRoadNation.com, one of the largest Oakley distributors/retailers in the South, comes on board as an associate sponsor for the remainder of the season.

According to the 28-year-old Don Schumacher Racing driver, his team is returning to the methods and approach which brought him to within a couple of rounds of winning the 2010 NHRA Full Throttle Funny Car championship.

“I’m excited to get to this race,” said the working cattle farmer from Christiansburg, Va. “Tommy DeLago (crew chief) has us getting back to what we know, what worked for us last year.

“We’ve been in sort of test mode most of this season, trying new things and we might have sacrificed some races along the way. It’s now time to get down to business, down to racing.

“And I’m excited doing it in a new body, with some great new sponsors, as well as our primary one, DieHard, which has been just a terrific supporter for us.”

Hagan opened the 2011 NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series season with a final-round appearance, then a semifinal one, followed by two first-round ousters before reaching the quarterfinals in the last race. He comes to Atlanta Dragway holding sixth place in the Funny Car championship standings.

“It’s now time to go rounds, get deeper into each race and I believe we will,” he said. “Tommy’s been working really hard and I know he can knock one out of the park; he’s proven it!”

Matt Hagan, last season’s runner up in the NHRA Full Throttle Funny Car championship, will debut the Autolite/DieHard Funny Car, with a unique paint scheme, during qualifying May 13 for the 31st annual NHRA Southern Nationals at Atlanta Dragway in Commerce, Ga.

Hagan, 28, will drive the distinctive black and orange Autolite Dodge Charger R/T throughout the weekend, the sixth event on the 2011 NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series schedule.

“I’m thrilled to add such a storied automotive brand like Autolite to my supporters,” said the Don Schumacher Racing driver. “Autolite spark plugs, FRAM filters and Prestone anti-freeze are great automotive names with great pedigrees – and as a full-time (cattle) farmer in addition to a lifetime around automobiles, I know something about pedigrees!”

Matt Hagan drove the DieHard Dodge Charger R/T Funny Car into the quarterfinals today at the 24th annual NHRA Spring Nationals here at Royal Purple Raceway.

After defeating 2011 NHRA Full Throttle Funny Car points leader Robert Hight in the first round at the track formerly known as Houston Raceway Park, the 28-year-old Don Schumacher Racing driver could not repeat that performance against Hight’s teammate Mike Neff in round two.

Neff, whose 4.122-second, 310.34-mile-per-hour lap was the quickest of the round, outdistanced Hagan, a cattle farmer from Christiansburg, Va., who posted a 4.211/300.73-mph pass. His first round pass was 4.261/297.02 mph versus Hight’s 4.952/163.35. 

Despite the natural disappointment at his premature departure, he still found reason for optimism moving forward.

“I am still excited about where our program is headed,” said an obviously frustrated Hagan, who had won this race last year. “We have a good race car, qualified in the top half of the field, and are just working things out.  It was a hot, humid, sticky day and the track was tricky, just like yesterday. Considering the conditions, we were still able to get a few good runs under our belt.

“Tommy DeLago (DieHard crew chief) did a great job this weekend, especially considering he was doing double duty, helping out on Ron’s (Capps, DSR teammate) car.

“He got both cars in the show and both made it into the quarterfinals on Sunday. That says a lot about Tommy and his ability, tuning two race cars in the same race under tough weather and track conditions.”

Heading to the next event on the 2011 NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series schedule, the May 13-15 31st annual Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Southern Nationals in Commerce, Ga., Hagan holds sixth place in the Funny Car standings. He trails points-leader Mike Neff, Robert Hight, DSR teammate Jack Beckman, Cruz Pedregon and Jeff Arend.

“We’ll go back to the shop, get everything serviced and ready, then head to Atlanta Dragway,” he said. “That race is pretty close to home, so I’ll have friends and family out to watch and hopefully we’ll turn it around there.”

Matt Hagan drove his DieHard Dodge Charger R/T Funny Car into the fifth starting position for Sunday’s 24th annual NHRA Spring Nationals as today’s qualifying rounds ended here at Royal Purple Raceway. 

The 28-year-old cattle farmer from Christiansburg, Va. will face Robert Hight, points leader in the 2011 NHRA Full Throttle Funny Car championship standings, in the first round of eliminations. Hagan expects a battle from the onset against both the elements and the driving competition.

“It’s going to be tough,” said the Don Schumacher Racing driver, who is the defending event champion. “The conditions will be like today, when we had trouble getting down the track, and Robert is always a tough competitor.

“I’m prepared to do what it takes. Last year, the track threw us a curve and I had to pedal the car to the finish in the finals. I’m prepared to do it again this year, if that is what is necessary.”

The runner-up for last year’s Funny Car championship remains optimistic in the face of these obstacles.

“We had trouble getting down the track today, but so did Hight; everyone is in the same boat here,” he said. “I am just looking forward to going rounds and getting myself back up in the points and building momentum for the future.”

Hagan entered this weekend holding fifth place in the standings, trailing Hight, Mike Neff, DSR teammate Jack Beckman and Cruz Pedregon.

“They’re all great drivers with great teams,” he said. “But I know Tommy DeLago (crew chief), just an animal tuner, and my DieHard guys are the equal to any of them and we are capable of winning on any given Sunday.

“I would like to begin that process tomorrow, here, the place where I got my first Funny Car win, which launched us on that great run last year.”

Matt Hagan heads into this weekend’s 24th annual NHRA Spring Nationals at Royal Purple Raceway hoping recapture the magic of last year when he won his first NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series national event here.

The 28-year-old cattle farmer from Christiansburg, Va., who drove the DieHard Dodge Charger R/T Funny Car to victory over Jeff Arend, is excited about returning to the Houston-area track.

“I’m thrilled to be going back to Houston,” said the Don Schumacher Racing driver. “This is a great track for us, obviously a memorable one for me.”

Hagan won a pedal fest in the final round last year, his 4.390-second/247.57-mile-per-hour pass topping Arend’s 4.714/231.20 (and beat him off the start line, with a reaction time edge of .039 seconds versus .074).

A successful Southwestern weekend is important for Hagan who comes into the race holding fifth place in the NHRA Full Throttle Funny Car championship standings.

“We’ve had a rough go compared to last year,” said the runner up in the 2010 Funny Car championship.  “Even if we don’t win the race, if we can go a few rounds it will help us pick up some momentum.

“The biggest thing is to remain positive, which I am because Tommy (DeLago) is a great crew chief and has a great crew working with him. We’ve got some bugs to work out and we’re doing just that.”

Regardless of the previous-race outcome, Hagan works to maintain the same approach.

“We’re all professionals, with a job to do, but we still should have fun out there,” he said. “I’m coming to Houston, will get to throw out the first pitch of the Astros game Thursday night, bring some of my DieHard team with me to Minute Maid Park, and maybe this will lighten up everything.”

Next NHRA Event

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