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After long, hard road, Erica Enders-Stevens enjoying outstanding success in NHRA Pro Stock

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So much has been made about Danica Patrick and when she’ll win her first Sprint Cup race.

Patrick could take a few pointers on how to win from NHRA Pro Stock driver Erica Enders-Stevens. Not only has the New Orleans resident earned three wins in four final-round appearances this season, she has qualified either first or second in 11 of the first 12 events in 2014.

But wait, there’s more, something Patrick likely can only dream about: the 30-year-old Enders-Stevens is dominating the Pro Stock class in the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series standings.

In addition to three wins (Las Vegas, Houston, Bristol), Enders-Stevens also one runner-up finish and two other semi-final finishes in the first 12 races heading into this weekend’s Summit Racing Equipment Nationals in Norwalk, Ohio.

Add all those stats together and it’s no wonder Enders-Stevens holds a massive 190-point edge over second-ranked and five-time and defending season champion Jeg Coughlin, and a 191-point edge over third-ranked and 2012 season champ Allen Johnson.

“It really is a dream come true, very surreal,” Enders said in an exclusive interview with NBCSports.com’s MotorSportsTalk. “I’ve dedicated 22 years of my life trying to get to this point, nonetheless with so many people’s help and wouldn’t have been able to get to this point without my dad.

“This is the first year I’ve had a team that stands behind me, a race car that’s capable of winning races and contending for the championship. It’s kind of one of those deals where you thank God for the blessings, stay humble and keep the faith.”

The Houston native, who now lives in New Orleans with husband and fellow Pro Stock racer Richie Stevens (who will likely eventually join his wife on the Elite Motorsports team once enough sponsorship for a second car is procured), has quickly become the most successful female Pro Stock driver in history.

In 164 career races, she has a total of nine wins, 12 runner-up finishes and 15 other semifinal finishes. She’s also been No. 1 qualifier seven times and has a 139-105 round won-loss record.

But it’s not been an easy road for Enders-Stevens. She started racing in the NHRA junior dragster program at the young age of eight. After nine years in that class, she moved up to the sportsman (amateur) ranks and eventually into the Pro Stock class.

Along the way, she learned some hard lessons, including what it was like to lose, failing to qualify for 50 races along the way. She and sister Courtney Enders were also the subject of a 2003 Disney Channel movie, Right On Track, which chronicled their efforts to become successful female racers against long odds and battles against many male racers.

“Back in 1992, my sister and I were the only girls, at least at our home track,” Enders-Stevens said. “Then we’d go to the national events and what-not, and there was just a small handful of us. Now, over 50 percent of the junior dragster drivers are female, which is pretty cool.”

But when she moved to Elite Motorsports at the end of last season, Enders-Stevens found herself in the best spot of her career – and her results this season have proven that.

“It’s been really awesome,” she said. “At the end of 2013, Richard Freeman, who is my team owner, hired me to drive for him and Elite Motorsports, probably the best move of my career.

“People are the most important part of the puzzle. Horsepower doesn’t hurt, but if you’re out here getting along, having fun and enjoying each other’s company, there’s no reason to go home and get a real job.

“I’ve been really blessed with a great group. The first two races, we struggled a little bit. But since Gainesville on, it’s just been kind of a dream season. We’ve jelled real quickly.”

Enders-Stevens has quickly earned a reputation for her nerves of steel and cool demeanor. She rarely strays from her mild-mannered disposition and doesn’t let the pressure of big-time drag racing get to her.

“Ninety percent of it is mental and you’ve just got to stay focused,” she said. “I don’t get excited in regular life, either. My dad used to joke with me as a kid and would say, ‘Act excited.’ And I’d say to him, ‘I am excited.’ I’m always pretty even kilter and just go with the flow.”

Having the first realistic chance to win her first Pro Stock championship, Enders-Stevens hasn’t strayed from her “go with the flow” demeanor. She wants that championship, but there’s still 12 races to go and knows anything can happen between now and season’s end.

“That’s the big picture, but it’s definitely a marathon, not a sprint,” she said. “Every weekend, we have to focus on going one round, one at a time, and not let the big picture interfere with week-to-week success and that’s one thing my team owner has really helped put in perspective.

“Yeah, we have high goals and are going to work hard to get there. At this point of the season, midway through, it’s a dream year, from the wins, to the K&N Challenge (a special race within a race that she also won), to (setting) both ends of the world record (speed and elapsed time).”

While she admittedly had a rough time coming up through the ranks, Enders-Stevens is thankful for the opportunities and success she’s had – and will continue to have – in NHRA racing, perhaps the most progressive form of motorsport in the world with its widespread and welcoming diversity program.

“It’s purely based on opportunity,” Enders-Stevens said. “NHRA has provided us a great platform for us to excel on. I started in junior dragster when I was eight years old and did that for nine years. Then I moved up to the sportsman league, which is like amateurs.

“We were all able to run on the same track as the pros as an amateur. You’re in front of the same crowd and sponsors. Just keeping your name and face out here, it just gives you a great stage to excel on. I think that’s a big reason why there are so many females and you’re able to start at such a young age. It teaches you the fundamentals of the sport and gives you a nice little ladder to climb if that’s your goal.”

She also gives credit to many of her fellow female drivers like Funny Car pilot Alexis DeJoria, Brittany and Courtney Force and others for what they bring to the sport.

But it was legendary Top Fuel driver Shirley Muldowney that first inspired Enders-Stevens and got her interested not only in becoming a drag racer, but also realizing that anyone can win a championship. Muldowney, now retired, became the first female champion in NHRA history, earning three titles in her career.

“Shirley Muldowney, for sure, was my idol,” Enders-Stevens said. “As a kid growing up, I rooted for her. And when she retired, it was Shelley Anderson, who is Shelly Payne now, the Top Fuel dragster.

“I always rooted for the girls, I guess, because I was a girl trying to compete with all the guys. … I certainly looked up to Shirley and she paved the way for us, people like me and Alexis DeJoria and other girls out here who are competing. I know what we have to put up with now in 2014. I can’t imagine what it was like in the ’70s (when Muldowney began racing in the NHRA). She’s (Muldowney) tough for a reason.”

Unlike other drivers who switch classes in their careers, Enders-Stevens plans on remaining in Pro Stock for the rest of her career – which could very well be another 15 to 20 years, with many more wins and potential championships.

“My heart and soul is here,” she said. “(Pro Stock is) a driver’s class. It’s your raw factory hot rod horsepower, it’s real and awesome and I love that the pressure’s on me and my crew chiefs. I like leaving with the clutch, I like shifting.

“The fuel guys (Top Fuel and Funny Cars) joke that we’re taxi cab drivers, and we say that they just stab and steer it. There’s a little fun banter going on between the classes, but I have no desire to run one. If I had no job and somebody offered me a lot of money to run one, sure, I’d do it. I mean, I’m licensed in a Funny Car and that’s the route I was going to go before Pro Stock. But now that I’ve been doing this and trying to make it for 10 years, this is it. I love it.”

Even with her commanding lead over Coughlin and Johnson in the Pro Stock standings, Enders-Stevens isn’t taking anything for granted or cleaning off a spot on the mantle for her potential championship trophy just yet.

But with her best previous season to date ending in a fourth-place finish (2012), she admits she has thought a lot about what it would be like to be an NHRA champion.

“That’s the stuff when you can’t sleep at night, you lay there thinking about since I was a kid,” she said. “There’s a lot of racing left and there’s at least six teams out here that have good cars that’ll be in the mix at the end of the year. It’ll just be staying consistent, not getting ahead of ourselves, going A to B and doing our best every race day. That’s what it’s going to take to win the championship.

“It’s grueling, it’s stressful, it’s tough, we’ve been on the road for a month now, then have a week off and then another three (weeks) in a row again. The summer stretch is really hard on everyone, but you just have to stay focused and not get ahead of yourself.”

She pauses, and then adds, “But it would be awesome (to win the championship).”

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

Videos below of Enders setting Pro Stock national speed and elapsed time records:

 

 

Rosberg surprised by Hamilton’s sudden interest in F1 safety

HOCKENHEIM, GERMANY - JULY 28:  Nico Rosberg of Germany and Mercedes GP walks in the Paddock during previews to the Formula One Grand Prix of Germany at Hockenheimring on July 28, 2016 in Hockenheim, Germany.  (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)
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Nico Rosberg is surprised by Lewis Hamilton’s sudden interest in Formula 1 safety as their dispute over the yellow flags shown in qualifying for the Hungarian Grand Prix continues.

Hamilton was forced to abandon his final Q3 lap in Hungary after a spin for Fernando Alonso sparked double waved yellow flags at Turn 8.

Mercedes teammate Rosberg was one of the last drivers to come across the double waved yellow flags, lifting briefly through the incident site before taking pole by one-tenth of a second.

The stewards investigated the incident late in the day, reportedly at Hamilton’s behest, but felt that Rosberg slowed sufficiently despite setting a session-best middle sector.

Hamilton said on Thursday that the lack of penalty given to Rosberg has now set a precedent for all other drivers to follow, before airing concerns about the safety of the ruling.

“He’s not someone who’s regarded for being interested in safety up to now, so quite a change there which I just noted,” Rosberg told NBCSN on Thursday in Germany.

When asked if that was a widely-held opinion, Rosberg said: “I have no idea,” before telling NBCSN pit reporter Will Buxton: “I’m sure you would share the opinion with me.

“There’s nothing to be biased about, it’s just a reflection. You can have the same one.”

Rosberg remained adamant that the rules regarding yellow flags in F1 are clear, reasoning his actions during Q3 in Hungary.

“It has been very clear, which is why I followed instructions totally and there was no issue,” Rosberg said.

“There’s no grey area – as long as you significantly slow down where there’s the incident where there’s the double yellow.

“Setting a purple lap on a drying track has nothing to do with the incident because the sector is huge.

“What’s important is you slow down in that one corner to keep things safe and that’s not changed. That’s the same as always.”

Hamilton: Hungary stewards’ Rosberg ruling sets precedent for all

HOCKENHEIM, GERMANY - JULY 28:  Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP talks to the media during previews to the Formula One Grand Prix of Germany at Hockenheimring on July 28, 2016 in Hockenheim, Germany.  (Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images)
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Lewis Hamilton believes the FIA stewards’ ruling on Nico Rosberg’s pole position lap partly set under yellow flags in Hungary sets a precedent for all other Formula 1 drivers.

Hamilton was forced to abandon his final Q3 lap in Hungary after a spin for Fernando Alonso sparked double waved yellow flags at Turn 8.

Rosberg was one of the last drivers to come across the double waved yellow flags, lifting briefly through the incident site before taking pole by one-tenth of a second.

The stewards investigated the incident late in the day, reportedly at Hamilton’s behest, but felt that Rosberg slowed sufficiently despite setting a session-best middle sector.

Speaking on Thursday about the incident, Hamilton once again questioned the way in which the regulations regarding yellow flags are interpreted.

“The rule has been written and I’m pretty certain even before my time, but since I started racing when I was eight, the rules have been written exactly the same since then and meant the same since then,” Hamilton told NBCSN.

“They just seem to be interpreted differently from year to year. I think that’s really what’s in question.”

Hamilton believes that the lack of action taken over Rosberg’s pole lap has set a precedent to all other drivers about what is acceptable under double waved yellow flags.

“Right now, it’s clear from the last result that’s I think how all us drivers can approach it the same way as the precedent was set in the last race unless it’s rectified this weekend,” Hamilton said.

“That’s the precedent that’s been set. We’ve not been told any other way so all you have to do is do that little lift which is not good in the big scheme of things. It’s not good.”

Hamilton believes that the leniency could backfire in the future, but hopes it will not take an incident to prompt the stewards to get tougher on yellow flags.

“That’s why I made so much noise about it at the last race,” Hamilton said.

“One day there’s going to be someone on the track. Then they’re going to be like ‘you have to slow down half a second and not go faster in the sector’.

“But hopefully they’ll make that decision before then.”

F1 radio ban lifted ahead of German GP

BUDAPEST, HUNGARY - JULY 23:  Red Bull Racing Team Principal Christian Horner on the pit wall during qualifying for the Formula One Grand Prix of Hungary at Hungaroring on July 23, 2016 in Budapest, Hungary.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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The restrictions on radio communications in Formula 1 have been lifted ahead of this weekend’s German Grand Prix following an F1 Strategy Group meeting on Thursday.

New rules were introduced for 2016 banning radio messages that could be deemed to breach article 27.1 of the sporting regulations that states drivers “must drive the car alone and unaided”.

The thinking behind the ban was that drivers would have to manage their races more instead of relying on their engineers.

However, it was brought into question at Silverstone when Nico Rosberg was penalized after Mercedes gave him instructions on how to manage a failing gearbox.

Jenson Button called for a review of the rule after receiving what he called a “joke” penalty last time out in Hungary when McLaren informed him that his brake pedal was not working properly.

In a statement issued on Thursday after the meeting in Geneva, it was confirmed that the ban has been lifted, with the exception of the formation lap.

“At the request of the Teams and Commercial Rights Holder, the FIA has agreed to adopt a more liberal approach to the interpretation of Article 27.1 (that a driver must drive the car “alone and unaided”),” a statement from the FIA reads.

”With the exception of the period between the start of the formation lap and the start of the race, there will be no limitations on messages teams send to their drivers either by radio or pit board.

“This approach is aimed at providing improved content for fans and spectators, as teams will now be required to provide the Commercial Rights Holder with unrestricted access to their radio messages at all times that their cars are out of the garage.”

Mid-Ohio offers turnaround opportunity for several Andretti drivers

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It’s been a rough season for the most part for Andretti Autosport.

Sure, Verizon IndyCar Series rookie Alexander Rossi won the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 in May, but highlights other than that have been few and far between.

Still, with five races left in the season – beginning with Sunday’s Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio – there’s still time for all four drivers in the Andretti stable to improve where they are currently.

Let’s break down each driver and his season to date heading into Mid-Ohio:

ALEXANDER ROSSI (No. 98 Castrol Edge/Curb Honda), 7th place: Rossi made IndyCar history when he won the Indy 500. But the other 10 races he’s competed in have produced a mixed bag of results.

The 2016 ESPYS - Arrivals

His highest finish outside of Indy was sixth at Iowa. Next was a pair of 10th-place finishes in the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis and Belle Isle Race 1.

Sandwiched around his sixth-place finish at Iowa, Rossi is coming off runs of 12th (Belle Isle Race 2), 15th (Road America) and 16th in the most recent race, at Toronto nearly two weeks ago.

While Rossi has struggled in qualifying (16.2 average start), his average finish is just outside the top 10 (11.9).

The California native has raced several times at Mid-Ohio in other series and hopes that past experience will lift him to a good finish Sunday.

“Looking forward to going back to Mid-Ohio,” Rossi said in a team media release. “It’s the second track on the schedule I have a history at, so the familiarity should make the adaptation a lot easier on Friday.

“I know the team has been working really hard the past couple weeks to improve the car and hopefully it can lead to a positive road course result.”

CARLOS MUNOZ (No. 26 Andretti Autosport Honda), 10th place: In his third full-time IndyCar season, Munoz for the most part has primarily been a 10th to 15th place finisher (six of 11 races). His best finish was a stout runner-up showing at Indianapolis for the second time in his career (also did so in 2013).

Firestone 600 - Qualifying

His average start is 12.5, including winning his first career IndyCar pole for the weather-suspended race at Texas that will be completed next month.

In addition to his Indy runner-up and sixth at Belle Isle Race 1, the Colombian driver has two other top 10 finishes: eighth in the season opener at St. Petersburg and 10th at Road America. Overall, he has an average finish of 11.8.

After a disappointing 17th place finish at Toronto nearly two weeks ago, Munoz looks to get back on track at Mid-Ohio.

“Mid-Ohio is one of the tracks I like the most in America,” he said. “It is a very challenging track and I’m looking forward to seeing how the weekend goes for us.

“We’ve had a really disappointing last few races and we really need a good result at Mid-Ohio. Hopefully we can change our luck around.”

RYAN HUNTER-REAY (No. 28 DHL Honda), 12th place: After back-to-back season finishes of sixth and sixth in 2014 and 2015, Hunter-Reay had high aspirations coming into 2016. But somewhere between the season opener in St. Petersburg (he finished third) and the most recent race nearly two weeks ago at Toronto (finished 12th), things went sideways.

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Even his best consecutive race run of the season – seventh and third at Belle Isle Races 1 and 2 and fourth at Road America – barely moved the needle for him in the standings (went from 13th to 11th – and now he’s back to 12th heading to Mid-Ohio).

Mid-Ohio has been an excellent track over the years for RHR. Including one start in the defunct Champ Car World Series, Hunter-Reay has zero wins, one pole, two podiums, four top-fives and five other top-10s at the 2.258-mile road course.

In fact, in all 10 starts he’s made at Mid-Ohio, Hunter-Reay has finished outside the top 10 just once (24th in 2012 due to engine problems). His average start there is 6.8, and average finish is 8.9.

Is it any wonder he’s looking forward to this weekend?

“It’s always a special weekend on the Verizon IndyCar Series calendar,” Hunter-Reay said. “Mid-Ohio has been a big part of my career from my teenage years in Skip Barber to my first-ever Indy car podium finish.

“This place is certainly one of my top three favorite racetracks and is one of the best as an overall event as well. We’ll be looking to improve on our fourth-place finish at Road America a few weeks ago and getting the DHL Honda back on the podium.”

MARCO ANDRETTI (No. 27 Snapple Honda), 17th place: There’s no other way to say it – mired in 17th place in the standings, Marco Andretti is having the worst season of his IndyCar career.

Firestone 600 - Qualifying

In 11 races, the grandson of Mario Andretti and son of Michael Andretti has had little to be happy about: zero wins, zero podiums, zero top fives and just two top 10s (ninth at Belle Isle Race 2 and 10th in the most recent IndyCar race nearly two weeks ago at Toronto).

In a sense, Andretti’s performance is a conundrum of sorts. While he’s completed all but five laps this season, he has yet to lead even one lap.

Up to now, Andretti’s worst season has been 15th in 2012. But with an average start of 18.3 and average finish of 13.5, he’s on track to set a new personal worst.

Still, Andretti hopes he can break out of his funk and have a decent run Sunday at Mid-Ohio:

“Mid-Ohio this year is going to be a physical race with the current aero kits, but I’m looking forward to the competition,” Andretti said. “It’s always a fun event weekend with a lot of fan support and a great turnout for Honda in their backyard.”

With six top-10 finishes in nine career starts at Mid-Ohio, Andretti has little place to go but up.

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