BRAINERD, MN — Pro Stock champion Erica Enders stared down the pressure and responded in championship fashion — again.
Enders won on a first-round holeshot for the second race in a row and advanced to the semifinals of the Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals on Sunday at Brainerd International Raceway before falling to points leader Jason Line. But she put up a fight in that race, too.
“We tried,” Enders said. “If you’d have asked me after Friday whether we’d go to the semifinals, I’d have never thought it was possible, but Saturday went a lot better, and we made strides in the right direction on Sunday.”
Drivability issues hampered Enders and her Elite Motorsports/Mopar Dodge team on Friday before she made two solid passes Saturday to claim the No. 11 qualifying spot. That put her up against Shane Gray in the first round, but Enders pulled off a 024-second reaction time and made her pass of 6.619 seconds at 207.94 mph hold up.
Gray, the No. 6 qualifier, had the third-quickest run of the round at 6.593 seconds at 209.36 mph, but it wasn’t enough.
Enders also won on a holeshot in the first round in Seattle, beating Alex Laughlin to take over the No. 10 spot in the Pro Stock points standings. After beating Allen Johnson in the second round, Enders climbed over teammate Jeg Coughlin Jr. to ninth in the points.
“To have a turnaround weekend like we did, to make up the ground on Alex, to solidify our spot in the Countdown is extremely important to me,” Enders said. “It was an exciting day.”
Unofficially, Enders is 13 points ahead of Coughlin and 49 ahead of 11th-place Laughlin. The top 10 race in the Countdown to the Championship, which is locked in after the next race, the U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis.
“It was definitely a fun weekend,” Enders said. “Another positive note is our Hemi powerplant stayed together, and that’s going to be crucial going into these last seven races. We’ll try to continue to spread the gap, and game on come Charlotte.”
Enders left first on all three higher-qualified opponents she faced Sunday. She had a .013 light against Johnson and made her pass of 6.656 seconds at 207.40 mph hold up as No. 3 qualifier Johnson slowed to a 6.732-second pass at 189.34 mph.
Line, the No. 2 qualifier, was nearly five-hundredths behind on the starting line, as Enders had a .024 light to his .072 reaction time, but Enders fell just short after a pass of 6.644 seconds at 207.75 mph couldn’t hold off Line’s 6.595-second run at 209.79 mph.
“E2 and E3 didn’t go like we thought they would, as far as e.t. is concerned, and I did not do my job against Jason,” Enders said. “All it takes is .022 to win that round, and that makes me mad because I’m better than that 97 percent of the time I let the clutch out. Just one of them deals. It’s got to be your day.”
It felt like old times for most of the day, as Enders raced to her second semifinal of the season. Enders and her team reached the semi’s regularly in 2014-15, but 2016 has been a struggled with the switch to electronic fuel injection and Dodge.
“We were all a little bit out of shape, it seems like, for going rounds on Sundays,” Enders said. “Everybody was huffing and puffing, trying to get things done before we got called to the lanes the next time. Before we fired (before the semifinals), I told (crew chief) Rick (Jones), ‘It’s fun to go rounds on Sunday, isn’t it?’ He said, ‘Heck yeah! We barely made it.’ I told him, ‘Believe it or not, we used to do this every week.’ He’s like, ‘I know, but we’re out of shape.’ “