CHICAGO, IL — The smile is slowly creeping back onto the face of two-time Pro Stock champion Erica Enders.
Enders and her Elite Motorsports/Melling Performance Dodge team snared the No. 9 spot for the K&N Filters Route 66 NHRA Nationals on Saturday at Route 66 Raceway, inching closer to the top cars in the Pro Stock class.
“I absolutely feel like we’ve made progress this weekend,” Enders said. “After Norwalk, the guys went back to the shop and made some pretty significant changes. The scoreboard has showed it a little bit this weekend, so that is something that has definitely been positive and has boosted morale.
“On top of that, we’ve also closed the gap on the faster guys. We’re within five (-hundredths) now instead of 10, so we absolutely have made strides in the right direction. Do we still have a lot of work to do? Absolutely. But at least now we’re within striking distance.”
Enders made a pass of 6.623 seconds at 208.46 mph, which was less than five-hundredths of a second off Shane Gray’s pole-winning lap.
“I’m very proud of my team for their hard work, their never-quit attitude,” Enders said. “It’s extremely frustrating, especially coming off the last couple of years. Friday, when we ran that .62, to hear my guys’ voices across the radio and for them to hear the excitement in my voice was great.
“We had a team dinner Friday night, and it was like the old days with the atmosphere here. It was very exciting.”
Enders had gotten used to winning the last two seasons when she went to the winner’s circle 15 times and won back-to-back championships. Her Elite team switched to Mopar fuel-injected engines for 2016, and development has taken longer than expected, but Chicago was a step up in performance.
Enders started the final qualifying session in the No. 7 spot, with a possible first-round match against Dodge teammate Jeg Coughlin Jr. looming. She was bumped down to No. 9 and will instead race Elite Chevy teammate Vincent Nobile. His best pass was 6.621 seconds at 208.62 mph for the No. 8 qualifying spot.
“We dodged a bullet by not having to race my Mopar teammate tomorrow, but we ended up with my other teammate, Vincent,” Enders said. “At least we know one of our Elite Performance engines will be going to the second round.”
Enders did turn on three win lights in Super Gas this weekend, racing the ORTEQ Energy Technologies roadster for owners Cody Ortowski and Buddy Wood. She made it to the final nine cars in that cutthroat Sportsman class.
“It was really fun to go some rounds again,” Enders said. “I joked with the Sportsman team that when you’re in the fourth round in Pro Stock, you’re racing for the trophy, but you’re barely on the home stretch in Super Gas.
“I need more seat time in that car to be a better bracket racer. That’s something I’ll dedicate some time to, and I’ll get better with time. To go four rounds here in Chicago — a racetrack that holds a special place in my heart — was definitely fun.”
Pro Stock eliminations start at noon, Sunday. FOX Sports 1 will carry qualifying action from 10 p.m. to midnight ET, Saturday, and eliminations live beginning at 2 p.m., Sunday.