NHRA: Pro Stock leader ready to return to track
When Erica Enders-Stevens flies down the Brainerd International Raceway dragstrip Friday for the first round of the Lucas Oil Nationals qualifying, it will have been 26 days since she last competed.
Enders and her Elite Motorsports team passed on Sonoma (Calif.) and Seattle to test, work on their Chevy Camaro and get ready for the final two races before the Countdown to the Championship.
Whether the gamble was worth it or not will depend on how Enders does on a track where she's won before.
"I can not wait," she said last week. "It's been a long couple of weeks without racing. I guess the stress of watching the other guys going rounds knowing we would be right there with them was hard.
"It's been an interesting couple of weeks. It wasn't anything that should be perceived negatively. It's the best decision for our team."
And being a part of a team is one reason Enders is having the year she's having. Despite missing two events, the 30-year-old still leads the Pro Stock field by 32 points over Allen Johnson.
She's won four of the 14 events she has competed in and placed second in another. She's won at Las Vegas, Houston, Bristol (Conn.) and Norwalk (Ohio) and finished second at Gainesville (Fla.) She has not lost in the opening round and owns a 30-10 round record. She also has two No. 1 qualifiers.
Enders points to her team, crew chiefs Rick Jones and Rickie Jones and owner Richard Freeman, as the reason for her success.
"2012 was my best season until this season as far as getting the first win and then going on to win three more times," said Enders. "2013 from Atlanta on, which is early spring, we were going race-to-race not knowing where our sponsorship was coming from. It was so stressful and taxing mentally and physically. It wore on us as a team.
"Being in the position we're in this year is a relief. I'm so very thankful for Richard Freeman and my entire crew. It's awesome. In 10 years of Pro Stock racing I've never had what I have right now."
The proof is in the success. Enders secured the points lead after the Summit Equipment Nationals March 31 in Las Vegas and hasn't lost it. Before Sonoma, Enders held a 184-point lead over Allen Johnson.
She said not having to worry about sponsorships and being able to concentrate on the race has made her a better driver, as have her crew chiefs.
"I really do feel that way," she said. "Rick and Ricky take the time and teach me and explain to me about the car. They let me be way more hands on and that makes me a better driver. It also gives me peace of mind and I don't have to worry about being undercut or stabbed in the back.
"Ricky Jones gave up the seat to allow me to drive this year. Because of that I do feel my driving is better. I have a different mindset about this."
It's a good time to be Enders. Her team just signed up with Mach 1 Global Services, which will serve as the title sponsor for the remainder of the season beginning in Dallas for the AAA Texas Fall Nationals.
"I guess, in the whole grand scheme of things, every driver wants to win the championship," said Enders. "I've never been in this position we're in this year. We have one of, if not the best, car. I have a tremendous team and they have my back. It's easy going, no stress, no pressure. We're always laughing. I've not had this in the past. Everything is coming together.
"Being out in front I've never done that before. It does have a little extra pressure, but we're No. 1 and we're going to do our best to maintain that. When we get to BIR, we're going to hit the ground running."
And Enders has run well at BIR. She picked up her third win of the 2012 season at BIR after qualifying first. Last year, despite not knowing if she would be racing at the Brainerd track because of sponsorship issues, Enders qualified sixth.
"Even with the new team and new car this year, our previous tech notes have been good," said Enders. "We're very excited to back to BIR and return to racing at one of our favorite places to go. The people are so awesome and there is always great racing. I'm excited to get back up there."