Tony Stewart Racing Defies the Odds

Matt Hagan and team owner Tony Stewart celebrate Hagan's fourth Funny Car championship - Tony Stewart Racing photo
Matt Hagan and team owner Tony Stewart celebrate Hagan’s fourth Funny Car championship – Tony Stewart Racing photo

Tony Stewart Racing (TSR Nitro) nearly performed the unthinkable. As a second-year NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series team, competing in both Top Fuel and Funny Car, TSR Nitro came into the final race of the year with both of its drivers, Leah Pruett in Top Fuel and Matt Hagan in Funny Car, poised to compete for a championship.

The team arrived at In-N-Out Burger Pomona Dragstrip with Pruett in third place and Hagan leading the points chase, respectively. There were points-and-a-half on offer for the weekend, so that baby points for qualifying, as well as per-round points were worth a sufficient number to, perhaps, change the outcome of the standings once four rounds of qualifying and the identical number of elimination rounds were complete.

Neal Strausbaugh’s second year as Leah Pruett’s crew chief brought him success – Anne Proffit photo

Pruett’s team, led by second-year crew chief Neal Strausbaugh, truly came of age this year. They spent 2022 learning to work together, figuring out how their team could operate optimally and understanding their driver. By the time the six-race 2023 Countdown to the Championship came around after the Dodge Power Brokers U.S. Nationals on Labor Day weekend, Leah, Neal and their crew were a cohesive bunch. They were ready and they were hungry.

Pruett’s pair of victories – at Norwalk in June and in the Countdown’s October race in Dallas – together with her runner-up result in Pomona last weekend, gave the driver third place in the final standings. She came into the in-N-Out Burger NHRA Finals at Pomona in third, just 19 points behind then-leader Steve Torrence. Qualifying sixth, she easily dispensed with eight-time Top Fuel champion Tony Schumacher in the first round (3.708/331.53 to Schumacher’s 4.107/218.94).

In the second round Pruett and three-time dragster champ Antron Brown engaged in a less-than superlative pair of runs down the track and, despite a far slower reaction time, it was Pruett first to the stripe at 4.128/263.15 to Brown’s 5.134/155.06. Going into the semifinals, Pruett needed to take on four-time Top Fuel champ Steve Torrence in a round that featured all four combatants for the dragster title: Doug Kalitta vs Justin Ashley were the other pair. Despite not having lane choice, Pruett gained the win light in the right lane, ahead from her better reaction time to the 1,000-foot timing beams: 3.717/331.04 beat 3.765/318.69.

Leah Pruett raced to the runner-up slot in the final race of the year – Anne Proffit photo

As the sun began to set Pruett, with lane choice decided to use the left lane for her winner-take-all bout against Doug Kalitta. While he had a 21-12 record against the driver who began her career on this very track at age eight, she was 2-0 against the Michigan racer in final rounds. It wasn’t enough as Kalitta raced to a lap of 3.673/334.98 to her 3.720/326.16 for a scant .0642-second margin of victory for Kalitta, winning his first Top Fuel title after 26 years of competing.

“The Pomona finals has lived up to every ounce of being the Mac Daddy race. We had an opportunity to run for a championship in the final round. The pressure was on for everyone to make it to the final,” she said. “Our heads are not low today; our TSR Dodge Direct Connection team performed like champions. Doug has deserved the title for a long time and today he earned it against us. I’ve never felt more deserving of my team as I did today. We went right down to the final race of the end for the championship. That’s all you can ask for as a racer.”

Leah Pruett – Anne Proffit photo

The road to a fourth Funny Car championship was a little less hectic for Matt Hagan and his Dickie Venables-led squad, who came with their driver from Don Schumacher Racing (DSR) in 2022. They had been together for years and secured the prior two (of three) titles as a single unit. Hiring the entire squad was a master stroke by Tony Stewart, who recognized that cohesion would benefit Hagan and also assist Pruett as her team was being constructed from bare bones.

In their first year under the TSR Nitro banner, Hagan and Venables finished third to former DSR teammate Ron Capps and John Force Racing’s Robert Hight, both of them in the thick of this year’s championship chase. Hagan’s six wins over the 21-contest 2023 campaign were the best of the bunch and, while all four Funny Car championship combatants were on the sidelines by the time Sunday’s second round of racing was complete, Hagan retained 12 points over Hight and 17 over third-place Bob Tasca III, who was trying for his first national championship in this class. Capps, who exited after the first round was 175 points behind Hagan once the finals were complete.

In earning his fourth title on Sunday, Hagan joins an elite group: John Force, Kenny Bernstein and Don Prudhomme are the only drivers who have won at least four titles in the Flopper class. Hagan qualified fourth by the time a quartet of qualifying sessions were held, with a lap of 3.869 seconds. In the first round he defeated fellow Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat driver Alex Laughlin, driving for Jim Dunn, while the second round was a smoker for both the Virginia cattle rancher and Blake Alexander’s Jim Head Ford Mustang, an ugly bout that saw Hagan have a quicker reaction time (.062 to .074) but a slower ET (4.251/261.52 for Hagan against Alexander’s 4.196/258.71).

Matt Hagan earned his 4th Funny Car championship and the first for Tony Stewart Racing – Anne Proffit photo

That Tony Stewart Racing had the opportunity to double-up on Top Fuel and Funny Car championships in only their second year of competition gives away one fact for sure: their team owner knows how to win and understands hiring the best people helps you get to that mountaintop quicker.

“I’m so proud of Matt,” Stewart said after racing was complete. “He is one of the best cheerleaders for a racing team that I know. He never lets his crew guys get down and makes my job so much easier as a car owner. To lock this championship already in the Tony Stewart Racing Nitro history, this is an unbelievable day. And we had a chance with Leah’s team too. They all did an awesome job.”

Will TSR Nitro join the likes of Kalitta Motorsports and John Force Racing as powerhouses in next year’s Mission Foods Drag Racing Series? From top to bottom this is a stellar squad. And it’s owner didn’t do too shabbily in his first season of Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series Top Alcohol Dragster competition, as he finished second to Julie Nataas in his first full season of straight-line competition.

The Mission Foods Drag Racing Series competitors have 21 opportunities to win a title in 2024, beginning with the 55th NHRA Gatornationals at Gainesville, Fla. Raceway March 7-10, 2024.

About Anne Proffit 1264 Articles
Anne Proffit traces her love of racing - in particular drag racing - to her childhood days in Philadelphia, where Atco Dragway, Englishtown and Maple Grove Raceway were destinations just made for her. As a diversion, she was the first editor of IMSA’s Arrow newsletter, and now writes about and photographs sports cars, Indy cars, Formula 1, MotoGP, NASCAR, Formula Drift, Red Bull Global Rallycross - in addition to her first love of NHRA drag racing. A specialty is a particular admiration for the people that build and tune drag racing engines.

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