Matt Hagan came in on a mission, and left New England Dragway in Epping, NH with his third win of the 2022 season and some breathing room in the Funny Car point standings.
Hagan and his Tony Stewart Racing team have quickly shown that they will be a force to be reckoned with in 2022 and beyond, winning three of the first eight races in the category and amassing a 41 point lead, unofficially, in the Funny Car standings.
Hagan was quick to credit his crew, which he was able to keep together when he made the move from Don Schumacher Racing over to Tony Stewart Racing during the offseason.
“I’m nothing without them,” Hagan said. “They truly deserve all the credit, because they do it all. Don’t get me wrong, this is a new team with TSR, but we’ve been doing this 11 years, man. I’m so, so proud of my guys. You can sit up here and go, ‘Wow, that’s great. You’re such a great driver.’ But I’m truly nothing without them. I pack some parachutes and fill a little air bottle, and I get to hold onto one of the fastest race cars in the country. I feel bad taking the trophies home some days. I should be giving all my trophies to these guys, instead of me. I’m just, really proud of them.”
He said key among those crew members are crew chief, Dickie Venables, and tuners, Mike Knutson and Alex Conway.
“(Venables) has got the tune up and all the data to go into it,” Hagan said of Venables. “I’m just hanging onto a fast race car. Some tracks just show you love, and some tracks it’s like I can’t buy a round. This track’s got history for me and it’s got love. It’s going to be a good weekend most times.”
Sunday marked Hagan’s sixth final round appearance in the eight races so far in 2022, and until Sunday his only bugaboo had been having to face Robert Hight. Hight had beaten Hagan all three times they had faced off, including two final rounds, prior to Sunday. But Hagan used a 3.922 second run at 327.98 miles per hour to get a measure of revenge as Hight spun his tires, fading to a 6.232 second pass.
Hagan got one back in Epping though, and concluded a weekend that saw him dominate the class. He had the fastest car in two of three qualifying sessions, then made short work of Dale Creasy Jr. in round one on Sunday. Because there were only 14 cars competing, he got a bye into the semi-finals where he took down JR Todd to earn a spot in the finals against Hight.
“You have to give a lot of respect to Robert Hight and Jimmy Prock and those guys. They’re killing it. They’re showing up and showing out, and I love that because it creates a great rivalry for our fans. We had sold out crowds here, and that’s what they want to see. They want to see that throw down and see who’s gonna win it this week. And it’s a good coin toss between the two teams right now.”
Like Hagan, Mike Salinas picked up his third win on the young season, matching Brittany Force for the most in the Top Fuel class. And he put out a warning to the rest of Top Fuel that he doesn’t even feel like the team has hit its peak yet.
“I would call this a lucky week,” he said. “I got lucky (today). Justin is a great kid. He cuts good lights. This has been an off week for me. From the driving to everything. I’ve been all over the place and I’ve been a mess. I’m doing a couple silly things in that car and not realizing that I’m doing it, so we’ve got to work that out.”
Salinas beat Justin Ashley in the final round with a 3.729 second run at 330.80 miles per hour, to earn the win, after dispatching Joe Morrison, Leah Pruett and Austin Prock from his No. 3 qualifying position.
To already have three wins under his belt, with the hot months coming, gives Salinas confidence that his team will only keep improving.
“We did some testing at hot tracks and a lot of the races we’re coming to are hot, and that’s where we think we will shine even more than we do now. Everything’s a test session until the last six races.
“We know we have a good car, so we’re going to test all the different things. We’re going to win some, we’re going to lose some, but we’re going to test all the different things that we want to test for the countdown.”
While Hagan and Salinas’ three wins apiece are impressive, Enders picked up her NHRA pro category leading fourth win on the season in Epping on Sunday. She said she feels like this season is off to an even better start than her dominant 2015 championship year.
“In 2015 we had a tremendous season, winning nine of 11 finals and claiming the championship before the season was even over,” she said. “And this season is going better than that. I know as well as anybody that there are more valleys than there are peaks, but we’re going to enjoy the ride while it lasts and just try to capitalize on every single moment.”
Enders beat Kenny Delco in the first round and knocked rival Greg Anderson out in round two. She dodged a bullet in the semi-finals when she spun the tires, but opponent Mason McGaha red lit to hand over the win. In the final round she had to face teammate Aaron Stanfield, the 2021 winner of the New England Nationals and she ran to the win with a 6.547 second run at 211 miles per hour.
“Any weekend we can stick two Elite Motorsports, Elite Performance cars in the final is just epic and awesome,” she said. “Aaron won last year and we won here in 2017 after a winless 2016.
“Being able to win here in 2017 kind of turned the tides for us, and parking Aaron’s car in the winner’s circle last year was significant. But to go out there and know what each of us have under the hood and what each of us can do behind the wheel is pretty awesome. I love it. I’m so proud of my team.”
Sunday marked Enders third straight win – just the second time in her career that she has had such a streak. She said her team had been focused on their “drive for five” championships.
“We have kind of have keyed it, ‘drive for five,’” she said. “The fashion we lost in last year was kind of gut-wrenching. It kind of gave us that extra edge to get to work. Then, on a personal side, I had reconstructive surgery on my elbow in the offseason and I didn’t even know if I was going to be able to drive in February, but thankfully my doctor cleared me.”
She credited team owner Richard Freeman for making sure that she and her teammates have the best available to them.
“We don’t want for anything,” she said. “You never know how things are going to go, but we will continue to ride the wave.”