Tony Stewart Racing wins with Matt Hagan in Funny Car to open NHRA 2023 season Ken Roczen details dramatic win and difficult decisions on Title 24 podcast
GAINESVILLE, Florida — Tony Stewart started the 2023 NHRA season with a win — as team owner.
Stewart scored in the second round of elimination in the Top Alcohol class on Saturday, but the three-time NASCAR champion finished first in the drag racing season with Matt Hagan, one of his drivers at Tony Stewart Racing. winning the Funny Car final at Gatornationals on Sunday.
Hagan completed the 1,000-foot lane in 3.926 seconds, just enough time to pass Todd’s JR and leave Stewart hugging and high-fiving his team at Gainesville Raceway.
“Bossman is happy,” Hagan joked.
Stewart is starting his second season as an NHRA team owner. The 1997 IndyCar champion added to his legendary racing resume by spending a full season driving for McPhillips Racing in the lower division.
Hear what @TonyStuart should have said about @MattHagan_FCvictory on #Gatornats & @LeahPruett_TF advancing to the semifinals. 🙌🏼#TSrnitro | @NHRA | @Dodge | @Official MOPAR pic.twitter.com/UWSSqpcQZ8
— Tony Stewart Racing Nitro (@TSRnitro) March 13, 2023
It went a little wrong in Gainesville’s first two weekends, losing in the first round last week at the Baby Gators, an NHRA regional event, and then leaving earlier than Saturday’s sold-out crowd had hoped.
It was a stark contrast to his first professional drag race last October, when Stewart reached the final on his Nevada Nationals debut. He lost to college student Madison Payne by an inch – officially the difference is 0.0002 on the clock.
Stewart was hoping for another chance in Gainesville. But he settled for a win with Hagan, who took his 44th Funny Car win and fifth in two years with Stewart. This moved him to fourth place in Funny Car history, breaking a tie with Tony Pedregon.
It was his second straight win at the Gatornationals, an event that had eluded him for the first 14 years of his NHRA career.
“To win the Gators in a row, man, I’ve only tried to win once my entire career,” he said. “Super special offer.”
Mike Salinas won the Top Fuel division, Troy Coughlin Jr won the Pro Stock and Gage Herrera won the Pro Stock Motorcycle.
None of the four current champions of the series even made it to the semi-finals. Brittany Force (Top Fuel), Ron Capps (Funny Car), Erica Enders (Pro Stock) and Mike Smith (Pro Stock Motorcycle) were upset in the first or second round on Sunday.
The Force issue was one of many problems for the John Force Racing powerhouse. Austin Prok (Top Fuel) had a problem on the starting line, Robert Hite (Funny Car) had a wheel spin at the start of the race and John Force (Fun Car) took advantage at the starting line.
For decades Force has been the most attractive sport. But Stewart, who married Top Fuel racer Leah Pruett in 2021, has become a fan favorite in a hurry. This was evident in the applause in the stands and the queues in the garage.
“When I sign in a T-shirt trailer, my line is much longer than when Tony signs,” Hagan said. “He’s great for sports and now he’s into driving so he’s really bitten by the bug. …
“The golden goose is not often received, you know what I mean? You must support it.”
Title 24, NBC Sports’ new podcast featuring supermotocross champions Ricky Carmichael and Ryan Villopoto, welcomed its first guest on Wednesday, March 14, when Ken Roczen detailed his emotional victory in Indianapolis. It was the first Supercross (SX) win for the 2016 and 2021 Stadium Series runner-up since he won the season-opening SX last year in Anaheim. Title 24 is available on all major podcast services and Motorsport on the NBC YouTube channel.
“What a story that was for the team, for Suzuki and for me personally,” Roczen told Carmichael. “I’m so glad that I’ve been able to do so many cool things in my career.
“I may not have championship after championship, but there were really special moments that only a very few people can get. After that I was speechless and this race was at the very top of my list for some reason.”
The 2022 season ended in stark contrast to how it started with its worst performance in five years. After finishing outside the top five in seven of his last eight rounds in the Stadium Series and falling heavily on points in ninth place, he decided to put that season on hold. Roczen said during a press conference at the beginning of the season that he urgently needed a change.
“I had one win last year,” Roczen said on the Title 24 podcast this week. “I had a really tough year and it wasn’t good mentally, physically, or anything else. I was in a pretty bad place actually. So that’s why [this win] it was so emotional for me.”
Part of Roczen’s change was a risky move to the HEP Motorsports Progressive Ecstar Suzuki team.
On a bike that hadn’t been super competitive for many years, Roczen realized from the first session that the Suzuki had solid bones, even if there was a lot of work to be done.
Roczen’s prowess helped the bike in the early rounds as he ran test sessions that lasted until dark. He finished eighth or better in seven of the first eight rounds and had one podium finish at the Anaheim Triple Crown. Roczen failed to win any of these features, but consistently finished second, third, and fourth.
“For some reason, that Saturday night was something I’ve been dreaming of for the past few months,” Roczen said. “Of course, I had a very difficult last year. I have made the important decision to move to the Progressive Ecstar Suzuki team.
“It was just a story of a loser. There were so many eyes on us and being able to finally pull this off after the number of hours and work we put in was so special and that’s exactly what everyone felt on Saturday night.”
Roczen was not the only driver on the field who experienced a storm of emotions. After the checkered flag was flown, runner-up Justin Barcia stopped next to him on the track to hug Roczen. This caused a flood of riders to line up to congratulate Roczen.
Ranked fifth on the Supercross points chart, the win also brings Roczen back into the championship conversation after trips by Eli Tomac and Chase Sexton closed the gap between Roczen and the top three.