spent the regular season preparing for
the Countdown, experimenting as the
season progressed, trying things in the
clutch that might or might not work, yet
Hagan still ranked among the points
leaders all year. He was runner-up at
Pomona and Denver, and when the points
were reset for the Countdown, found
himself no longer 300 points behind Neff
but a much more doable 70 points back.
“For Tommy to go with totally
different combinations – not just in
testing, but right in the middle of the
race sometimes – and still run with
everybody truly amazes me,” Hagan says.
“He does best when he listens to himself.
Nobody but him and this crew got us
back here again. I don’t think one guy on
the team made a single mistake all year.
I told Tommy, ‘We’ve set the national
record three times now. Just do what you
do.’ I get out of the car sometimes in awe
of what we just ran, but Tommy says
we’re playing a chess game out here and
it’s all about methodical moves.”
Inside the cockpit, Hagan is mentally
tougher now, heat-treated by the crushing
disappointment of 2010. “It was easy to
feel pressure last year because I’d never
been in that situation before,” he admits.
“I tried to block it out, but there’s so much
attention from the media that you can’t.
“But I’m more comfortable now, more
confident. We evaluated everything in
the off-season. What can we do to be a
better team? What am I, as a driver, leaving
on the table? I lost 37lbs, and that’s hard
when you’re a fat kid at heart like me.
I just wanted to do everything I could to
be better, and now I feel sharper. I’ve
worked hard, trained hard and practiced hard on the Tree, and
Crew chief Tommy DeLago kept the DieHard Dodge Charger in the leaders throughout the season, while also experimenting with setups. (ABOVE) There’s much mutual respect between Hagan and John Force, who famously dueled for the 2010 Funny Car crown.
I’m putting it all out there.”
Hagan has been the center of attention since his 3.99 at
Charlotte to open the Countdown. “Everybody’s chasing me
again, and it seems like it’s harder to keep the points lead than
it was to get it in the first place,” he says, “but the atmosphere
around the whole team is different this year. Tommy has grown
as a crew chief, and I think I have as a driver. Obviously, there’s
pressure – the same pressure we all felt last year. But we know
what we’re supposed to do now that we’re in this position. We
can’t just say, ‘OK, everybody’s out now. Time to start going
some rounds.’ We have to do what we already know how to do.
But it’s hard not to second-guess yourself sometimes. I mean,
we’re all human. How do you block that out completely?”
The pressure can be enormous, especially for a young driver
like Hagan. “When you get down to the end, Force knows how
to walk through that door and close it behind him,” he says.
“We had several opportunities to close the door on him last year
and didn’t get it done, and when that happens, it’s like the car
runs over your heart. But we’ve really learned a lot in the last
few races. We had a good car all year and won a lot of rounds.
It’s easy to Monday-morning-quarterback everything, but in
the heat of it, I think we’re making a lot of good decisions.
“People consider Tommy a swing-for-
the-fences crew chief who goes for low
e.t. every time, but he’s not. I don’t think
you’ll see a repeat of what happened last
year. That’s not bragging; that’s just
confidence. Maybe it’ll be this year, and
maybe it’ll be 10 years from now, but I
know we can win a championship.”
It’s hard to fathom this team not
winning at least one, and Hagan is
solidly in the hunt deep in the season for
the second time in a row and the second
time in just three full years in a fuel car.
“Ron Capps has been close so many
times,” relates Hagan, “and he told me,
‘ You never know. You just have to be in
there at the end to have a shot.’
“When you win races, it seems like
you forget about them right away
because they’re what you expect! But the
big ones you lose, they stay with you. I
shouldn’t dismiss second place – it’s the
best I’ve ever done, by far. But we didn’t
put a number 2 on our car for this year like
everyone always does. Why have that?
All it is, is a grim reminder of what we
didn’t accomplish, and I don’t ever want
to have that ‘what if?’ feeling again.”