Hagan, Brown off to hot starts

CONCORD, N.C. -- "I wanna go fast!"

On Friday night, NHRA Funny Car racer Matt Hagan said it with a point, a wink and an unapologetic nod to Ricky Bobby, he of the stock-car racing silver screen. On Sunday afternoon, he said it again, this time with a Wally statue in one hand and a victory in the NHRA O'Reilly Auto Parts Nationals that recent history says will provide any racer with an inside track toward a championship.

Sunday afternoon's finals victories by Hagan, Antron Brown in Top Fuel, Kurt Johnson in Pro Stock, and Eddie Krawiec in Pro Stock Motorcycle capped a curiously cool weekend that produced furiously fast speeds. On Friday night, Hagan covered the course in 3.995 seconds, the NHRA's first three-second Funny Car run. Over the remainder of the weekend two more national records were broken (all three were backed up) as were seven of the track's eight pro records.

The concrete launching pads of the zMax Dragway also produced Top Fuel's fastest-ever field at 1,000 feet and the quickest Pro Stock Motorcycle field at any distance.

"We had a thirty-degree drop in temps," explained Jack Beckman, who set his own national record with a 318.92 mph Funny Car pass, also on Friday night. "We got here Thursday and it was like 95 degrees. But when it was time to run on Friday it was 65. We were like, 'Oh man, we're gonna be moving tonight.' "

Sunday's eliminations began in slightly warmer but still overcast conditions. And no one had to be reminded of the importance of starting strong in the first round of the NHRA's six-race Countdown to the Championship postseason format.

This marked the fourth time that the zMax Dragway, located just north of Charlotte, has been included in the Countdown and the third time it has hosted the opening round.

The past two seasons, three of the four winners at zMax Dragway have also gone on to win the world championship in their respective divisions. The only exceptions being Tony Schumacher, who was upset in the semifinal round of '09, and John Force when he didn't even make it out of the first frame a year ago.

In other words, it's not impossible to recover from a stumble in the Countdown's first stanza, but it's surely a more difficult way to make a living.

"Charlotte is huge and everybody knows it," says Schumacher, who took the zMax/championship double in '08. "Look at last year. We lost to [Larry] Dixon in the second round. He goes on to win the event, puts us in a hole, and even when we won two of the last four, it wasn't enough to catch him. We take care of business at Charlotte and it would have been a whole different ballgame over the remaining races."

Unfortunately for Force, reigning Pro Stock champ Greg Anderson and Del Worsham, who has led the Top Fuel standings nearly all year, they'll experience that challenge firsthand. All three were bounced in Sunday's opening round. Schumacher, still winless in 2011, was eliminated in the semis by teammate Brown.

Two of the four winners -- Brown and Krawiec -- seized the points lead in their respective divisions as they move on to the second of the Countdown's six rounds, next weekend's AAA Texas Fall Nationals near Dallas. Hagan remained in second, but did close the gap on leader Mike Neff, whom he defeated in the finals.

Line held onto his Pro Stock points lead, despite the loss. The man he lost to was the happiest zMax Dragway winner of them all, 19-year Pro Stock veteran Kurt Johnson. When Line red-lighted in the finals, it opened the door for the 48-year old to grab his slump-busting 40th career finals victory. It was his first win since Brained, Minn., on Aug. 10, 2008, and a moral victory for those who failed to make the 10-car Countdown fields.

The Johnson family erupted the instant Line's red light blinked on. The raucous celebration was led by Kurt's parents, mother Arlene and father Warren, a six-time Pro Stock champion and not one normally known for outward exuberance.

"You don't ever start doubting yourself in this sport," Kurt Johnson said afterward. "If you do that, you need to find another line of work. But it had been a while. Dad got his comeback win last year after three years without a win. I got mine today. Now let's see if we can't go on and get the next win one week from now."

Ryan McGee, a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine, is the author of "ESPN Ultimate NASCAR: 100 Defining Moments in Stock Car Racing History." He can be reached at mcgeespn@yahoo.com.