March 12, 2023,
Auburn Hills, Mich.
Three-time NHRA Camping World Funny Car Champion Matt Hagan of Christiansburg, Virginia, scored his second straight NHRA Amalie Motor Oil Gatornationals drag-racing title Sunday by driving his Tony Stewart Racing (TSR) Direct Connection Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat Funny Car to victory at the legendary Gainesville Raceway in the 2023 NHRA season-opening national event.
Hagan, who qualified fifth Saturday in the 16-car field, defeated former NHRA World Champion J.R. Todd in the Funny Car final with a 3.926 at 329.34 mph to claim his 44th career NHRA Funny Car crown, moving him to fourth all-time in NHRA Funny Car victories. In an exciting Funny Car finale, Hagan and Todd battled side-by-side through half track before Todd’s car smoked the tires and Matt went on to take the win light.
Earlier in eliminations, Hagan defeated Tim Wilkerson, Bob Tasca and Alexis DeJoria to advance to the final round against Todd.
Hagan gave credit for the victory to his Dickie Venable-led TSR crew, as the team debuted a new chassis and engine parts in the season opener.
“It’s super special to win the Gatornationals again,” said Hagan. “I tried my whole career to win here, and we just got the first one last year. Can’t say enough about Dickie Venables (crew chief) and the crew today. It’s Dickie’s birthday and this win is a present for him. We had the entire crew come back this year, which is rare in motorsports. We have a new chassis that I had to get accustomed to with a different steering setup and clutch position in the new car, but testing helped me get used to it. We thought we had a good car after testing and it says a lot with Dickie’s experience and the crew’s effort.
“I knew J.R. (Todd) was going to be tough in the final, and he poked his nose out ahead a bit early and then we drove around him for the win. I can’t thank Dodge and Mopar enough for their assistance with our TSR squad. The Direct Connection Dodge SRT Charger Hellcat ran awesome today. It was great to win Tony’s first Wally here last year and this one is very special too. It’s different to start the whole season at Gainesville after decades starting at Pomona. Winning my 44th NHRA national event is very special when you have legends like John Force, Ron Capps and Robert Hight in front of me. Now, with this win, it is a super way to start the 2023 season. We hope to continue it next race at Phoenix.”
Hagan’s TSR Direct Connection teammate Leah Pruett recorded a strong Top Fuel performance, as the Arizona driver advanced to the semi-finals Sunday before losing to eventual race winner Mike Salinas. Pruett, who qualified fourth in the Top Fuel 16-car field, took out Doug Foley in the first round and Austin Prock in round two with impressive runs of 3.686 and 3.731. An extensive winter testing program assisted Pruett and her team in gathering solid information for the 2023 season-opening race.
“This weekend was quite a turnaround for our Direct Connection TSR Top Fuel team after not competing last year here,” said Pruett. “It’s a testament to where we left off in 2022. We actually ran 24 test passes this winter. We took a hybrid of all of our test runs to come into this weekend. There wasn’t one run of the 24 that we thought was the perfect setting. The TSR crew did a great job putting a setup together for our car. The track was very unique this weekend. It was good after the starting line, but the line was very tricky. Because we were able to go through those types of challenges in testing, that really helped us this weekend. I couldn’t be more proud of the Direct Connection team. This event was good for momentum going to Phoenix, the site of my first NHRA Top Fuel win. These Sublime Green machines are so cool looking and fast too.”
Team owner Tony Stewart was elated with his Direct Connection team’s performance this weekend at the Gatornationals and had big smile in the NHRA winner’s circle Sunday.
“This was an awesome weekend for us in Gainesville at the Gatornationals,” said Stewart. “Matt’s win is the anniversary of our very first team win in the nitro division, so what an awesome weekend. We couldn’t ask for more. Dickie Venables’ birthday is today, so what an awesome way to celebrate. We have two other team members with birthdays this week. We’re really big on birthdays and we’re one team, all team. You can’t win them all if you don’t win the first one, so we got the first one in the books. Leah and her team did an awesome job making it to the semifinals. What a transformation from a year ago when we missed the show. What a difference a year makes. I’m really proud of everyone at TSR.”
The Dodge and Mopar contingent recorded another NHRA Gatornationals title Sunday with Joe Welch of Longboat Key, Fla., driving his Dodge Challenger Drag Pak to victory in the FlexJet Factory Stock Showdown over Aaron Stanfield. Welch collected $10,000 from the Direct Connection Drag Pak contingency program for his win.
In other Gatornationals competition, Dodge SRT Funny Cars drivers Cruz Pedregon and Alex Laughlin were defeated in the first round of eliminations Sunday.
The Dodge//SRT Direct Connection racers compete in two weeks (March 24-26) at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park in Chandler, Ariz., for the NHRA Arizona Nationals.
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