NHRA Pro Stock points leader, Erica Enders-Stevens suffered her first opening round loss of the the 2014 season Sunday during the 33rd annual Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals at Brainerd International Speedway. The event marked her return after a brief two race hiatus, sitting out after clinching a 13 consecutive race points lead in preparation for the upcoming Countdown to the Championship. The NHRA's six-race version of playoffs begins mid-September in Charlotte, NC.
It did not initially look as though her time away would slow her season-long hot streak. Without skipping a beat, Erica Enders-Stevens placed her front-running Elite Motorsports Camaro in solid contention for the weekend, qualifying third in the factory hot rod class with a swift 6.630 at 207.69 mph.
"I'm so happy to be driving again," said Enders-Stevens, who last raced July 20 in Denver. "Thankfully, it's kind of like riding a bike where everything came right back to me the first pass down the strip. Obviously, the team picked up right where we left off as well. I'm a happy girl."
Enders-Stevens is no stranger to success in Brainerd, winning the event in 2012.
"Any time you're out of the seat for an extended amount of time it's tough on you," Enders-Stevens said. "Seat time is priceless and it was hard staying home when everyone else was racing, but we had to be patient and see the bigger picture, which is the championship. It really does feel good to be back in the car, though, for sure."
By qualifying No. 3 on the ladder, Enders-Stevens would face Dave River, who qualified 14th with a 6.793 at 204.23 mph. The two raced just once this season with Enders-Stevens taking the win. Her once sizeable points lead had been chipped away with her two race absence, and the team needed a strong showing to put some distance back in her lead.
"We had a huge lead but that's gone so we definitely have our work cut out for us," Enders-Stevens said. "We've had the dominant car all year but a couple of teams have started to catch up. The two Summit cars are right there, which always seems to be the case in the second half of the year, and my buddy Allen Johnson is just a round and a half back. Jeg (Coughlin) is right there also.
Erica was certainly ready for her first-round race against Dave River, where she recorded a perfect reaction time of .000-second to jump off the starting line in what appeared to be another victorious quarter-mile run. But just a few hundred feet later, her Elite Motorsports Camaro fell silent, and for the first time all year she was handed a first-round loss. Mechanical gremlins were found to be the cause of the ill-timed shutdown.
"We came back to the trailer, analyzed the data, and immediately found what went wrong. Suffice it to say all of those parts are going in the trash, and now we'll just reload and put this day behind us. We'll get to the shop for a few days and then head right back out to test. We want to make absolutely certain this never happens again."
With the loss, Enders-Stevens is in jeopardy of losing the points lead she has held for the last 13 races, a span of five months. Close friend Allen Johnson entered this event 32 points behind Enders-Stevens and advanced to the second round before yet another rain delay halted the action.
"It won't be a great feeling if we lose the points lead," Enders-Stevens said. "It was a really cool moment personally to go up on stage at driver intros and put my name up there in the No. 1 spot on the Countdown leaderboard. No woman has ever done that in the playoff era of drag racing and we really want to be the first. I guess we'll have to see what happens with Allen."
The Elite Motorsports team next competes Aug. 29-Sept. 1 at the 60th annual Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals at Lucas Oil Raceway in Indianapolis.
"Our focus is on the Countdown and we'd love to be No. 1 heading into that deal but if we're not, that's okay also because we'll be right there in the mix no matter what. The fight is going to take place among the same group of drivers and we need to be ready for it, no matter where we all start. I'm not worried about the start; I'm focused on the finish."
"Hopefully, we get to Indy and get back to doing what we've done all year, which is consistently getting down the racetrack and turning on win lights," Enders-Stevens said. "I've got all the faith in the world in my guys and I know that we're the best team out here. I've said that after every race this year, and it's never more true than right now. I'm a lucky girl.
"We plan to test a bunch before Indy in St. Louis. We'll run my car and (husband) Richie's car until the guys are 100 percent ready for Indy. Having twice the data will only help our cause that much more."