GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Tony Stewart ended up in the NHRA winner’s circle to start 2023 — as a team owner.
Stewart red-lighted in the second round of eliminations in the Top Alcohol class Saturday, but the three-time NASCAR champion finished drag racing’s season opener with Matt Hagan, one of his drivers at Tony Stewart Racing, winning the Funny Car finale at the Gatornationals on Sunday.
Hagan covered the 1,000-foot strip in 3.926 seconds, just enough to drive around JR Todd and leave Stewart hugging and high-fiving his team at Gainesville Raceway.
“Boss man’s happy,” Hagan quipped.
Stewart is beginning his second season as an NHRA team owner. The 1997 IndyCar champion added to his storied racing resume by getting behind the wheel for a full season driving for McPhillips Racing in a lower division.
Little went right during his first two weekends in Gainesville: He lost in the opening round last week at the Baby Gators, an NHRA regional event, and then bowed out earlier than a sellout crowd had hoped for on Saturday.
It was a stark contrast to his first professional drag-racing event last October, when Stewart made the final in his debut at the Nevada Nationals. He lost to college student Madison Payne by an inch – officially a difference of .0002 on the clock.
Stewart hoped to get another shot in Gainesville. But he settled for winning with Hagan, who notched his 44th Funny Car victory and fifth in two years with Stewart. This one moved him into fourth place in Funny Car history, breaking a tie with Tony Pedregon.
It was Hagan’s second straight victory at the Gatornationals, an event that eluded him for the first 14 years of his NHRA career.
“To win back-to-back Gators, man, tried pretty much my entire career just to win one,” he said. “Super special deal.”
Mike Salinas won the Top Fuel division, with Troy Coughlin Jr. taking Pro Stock and Gaige Herrera claiming Pro Stock Motorcycle.
None of the four reigning series champions even made the semifinals. 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 rounds Sunday.
Force’s trouble was one of many for powerhouse John Force Racing. Austin Prock (Top Fuel) had an issue on the starting line; Robert Hight (Funny Car) spun his tires early in his run; and John Force (Funny Car) got edged at the line.
For decades, Force has been the sport’s biggest draw. But Stewart, who married Top Fuel driver Leah Pruett in 2021, has become a fan favorite in a hurry. It was noticeable by the cheers in the stands and the lines throughout the garage.
“When I sign at the T-shirt trailer, my line versus when Tony signs, his line’s a lot longer,” Hagan said. “He’s great for the sport and now he’s involved in driving, so he’s really bitten by the bug. …
“You don’t get a golden goose very often, you know what I mean? You got to support it.”