NHRA: Pro Stock driver Erica Enders hitting on all cylinders heading into U.S. Nationals

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Just in time for the biggest yearly race in drag racing, the 61st annual NHRA U.S. Nationals next weekend (Sept. 2-7), Erica Enders is back where she wants to be: leading the NHRA Pro Stock point standings.

The defending Pro Stock champ, the first woman to ever capture that category’s top title, Enders will have double incentive to do well at the U.S. Nationals, in Brownsburg, Indiana.

First, she wants to win the race and head in to the subsequent Countdown to the Championship with a ton of momentum.

But there’s added incentive and a great honor to go with it:

“Chevrolet has asked me to be the grand marshal for the U.S. Nationals, which is going to be a huge honor for me,” Enders said in an NHRA media release. “We’ll do our best as a team to have an awesome weekend there.”

In addition, NHRA is adding incentive to pro drivers in next week’s marquee event by increasing the available points to be earned with a 50 percent bonus.

“It’s the first time it’s going to be worth a point and a half, so every round is going to be crucial,” Enders said.

Enders won last weekend’s race at Brainerd, Minn., her fifth triumph of the season, putting her back atop the Pro Stock standings.

“I had a really good feeling coming in (to Brainerd), even before the weekend started,” said Enders, who had struggled in the previous five races, winning just six total rounds since winning at Bristol. “I felt like it was our turn and the tables were about to turn.

The Brainerd triumph was Enders’ 17th career victory, putting her one win away from tying three-time Top Fuel champion Shirley Muldowney for No. 2 on the NHRA all-time win’s list by a female driver.

“I think we’re working our way back to having our awesome race car, and this is definitely a great step in the right direction, at the right point of the season,” Enders said. “We’re going to do our best to continue this momentum in Indy. It’s definitely going to be a dogfight in Indy.”

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Cadillac, Acura battle for top speed as cars back on track for Rolex 24 at Daytona practice

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The new hybrid prototypes of Cadillac and Acura battled atop the speed chart as practice resumed Thursday for the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

Chip Ganassi Racing driver Richard Westbrook was fastest Thursday afternoon in the No. 02 Cadillac V-LMDh with a 1-minute, 35.185-second lap around the 12-turn, 3.56-mile road course at Daytona International Speedway.

That pace topped Ricky Taylor’s 1:35.366 lap that topped the Thursday morning session that marked the first time the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship was back on track since qualifying Sunday afternoon that concluded the four-day Roar Before The Rolex 24 test.

In a final session Thursday night, Matt Campbell was fastest (1:35.802) in the No. 7 Porsche Penske Motorsports Porsche 963 but still was off the times set by Westbrook and Taylor.

Punctuated by Tom Blomqvist’s pole position for defending race winner Meyer Shank Racing, the Acura ARX-06s had been fastest for much of the Roar and led four consecutive practice sessions.

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But the times have been extremely tight in the new Grand Touring Prototype (GTP) category that has brought hybrid engines to IMSA’s premier class. Only 0.9 seconds separated the nine LMDh cars in GTP in qualifying, and though the spread slightly widened to 1.378 seconds in Thursday’s practices with teams on varying strategies and preparation, Westbrook still pooh-poohed the importance of speeds.

“It’s always nice to be at the top, but I don’t think it means too much or read too much into it” Westbrook said. “Big fuel tanks in the GTP class this year, so you have no idea what fuel levels people are running. We had a good run, and the car is really enjoyable to drive now. I definitely wasn’t saying that a month ago.

“It really does feel good now. We are working on performance and definitely unlocking some potential, and it just gives us more confidence going into the race. It’s going to be super tight. Everyone’s got the same power, everyone has the same downforce, everyone has the same drag levels and let’s just go race.”

Because teams have put such a premium on reliability, handling mostly has suffered in the GTPs, but Westbrook said the tide had turned Thursday.

“These cars are so competitive, and you were just running it for the sake of running it in the beginning, and there’s so much going on, you don’t really have time to work on performance,” he said. “A lot of emphasis was on durability in the beginning, and rightly so, but now finally we can work on performance, and that’s the same for other manufacturers as well. But we’re worrying about ourselves and improving every run, and I think everybody’s pretty happy with their Cadillac right now.”

Mike Shank, co-owner of Blomqvist’s No. 60 on the pole, said his team still was facing reliability problems despite its speed.

“We address them literally every hour,” Shank said. “We’re addressing some little thing we’re doing better to try to make it last. And also we’re talking about how we race the race, which will be different from years past.

“Just think about every system in the car, I’m not going to say which ones we’re working on, but there are systems in the car that ORECA and HPD are continually trying to improve. By the way, sometimes we put them on the car and take them off before it even goes out on the track because something didn’t work with electronics. There’s so much programming. So many departments have to talk to each other. That bridge gets broken from a code not being totally correct, and the car won’t run. Or the power steering turns off.”

Former Rolex 24 winner Renger van der Zande of Ganassi said it still is a waiting game until the 24-hour race begins Saturday shortly after 1:30 p.m.

“I think the performance of the car is good,” van der Zande said. “No drama. We’re chipping away on setup step by step and the team is in control. It’s crazy out there what people do on the track at the moment. It’s about staying cool and peak at the right moment, and it’s not the right moment yet for that. We’ll keep digging.”


PRACTICE RESULTS:

Click here for Session I (by class)

Click here for Session II (by class)

Click here for Session III (by class)

Combined speeds