(Photos courtesy Elite Motorsports)

NHRA: After slow start, Pro Stock champ Erica Enders gets back on right track at Las Vegas

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If Erica Enders had gone one more race like she had in the first three of the 2016 NHRA season, it would not have been a surprise if Elite Motorsports would have printed up some posters:

“Missing: Two-time defending NHRA Pro Stock champ. Best reaction times in the business. Beats all competitors. If you find her, please call.”

Even though Enders never actually was missing, her game was, to the point that some may have wondered if whoever was behind the wheel may be an imposter of the real thing.

Enders uncharacteristically lost in the first round of each of the first three races on the NHRA national event schedule.

When fans looked at the Pro Stock point standings, her name was nowhere to be found in the top 10.

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In effect, Enders couldn’t have gotten off to a worst start.

But then came this past weekend’s race at Las Vegas, and with it came the old Enders, the same driver who dominated the last two seasons en route to the championship.

As if waking up from a long winter’s slumber, Enders roared to life and took her Elite Motorsports/Mopar Dodge all the way to a semifinal finish in Sunday’s final eliminations of the Denso Spark Plus Nationals NHRA Nationals at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

The first sentence in Enders’ post-race media release said it all: “That’s more like it.”

“You find out what real champions are made of when you have to go through a little bit of adversity,” Enders said. “It makes you dig deeper and want it more.

“I don’t know we could possibly want it more than we already do, but my guys are amazing.”

To break through the first round elimination wall, Enders went back to the basics and what took her to the last two Pro Stock championships.

Now, it’s a matter of building upon what happened in Las Vegas and going from there for Enders, who climbed to ninth in the standings. By comparison, she was never lower than seventh in the Pro Stock points in her two championship seasons in 2014 and 2015.

She knows she has a ways to go, but if anyone can do it, Enders can.

“It was really nice to go rounds,” she said. “It felt like it was back to normal. We’re used to going deep into the race on Sunday, and we’re going to get back there.

“We just need a little bit more time. We certainly made strides in the right direction with our engine development program. We have work to do, but a semifinal appearance in Las Vegas was definitely awesome.”

Part of Enders’ slow start could be due to the fact that her team switched from Chevrolet power, which took her to the last two titles, to Dodge power for 2016. And in so doing, it’s not unusual in any form of motorsport to get off to a slow start when switching from one engine or manufacturer to another.

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But the Las Vegas showing is a very promising sign that bigger and better things are coming going forward.

Coming into this past weekend, Enders had won the last four Pro Stock final rounds at Las Vegas.

After qualifying a season-best fifth, she roared past first round foe Aaron Strong and teammate Drew Skillman in the second round before dropping to eventual event winner Jason Line in the third/semifinal round.

Line also defeated Enders in the second round of Saturday’s K&N Horsepower Challenge special race-within-a-race, ending Enders’ streak of two consecutive wins in that event as well.

But Sunday’s performance told a better tale.

“We did a lot better than we expected to today,” said Enders, who is now 18-1 in round wins in national events at Las Vegas with her Elite Motorsports team. “It was a good day, a good points day.

“We’ve got to get back to the shop, fix these awesome Hemis and go to Charlotte (the next race on the schedule) renewed, refreshed and ready to win a race.

“We’re not at the top of the pack, but we’ll keep making strides in the right direction and we’ll get better. It’s just a matter of time until we’re back to our winning ways.”

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Helio Castroneves ‘hustling’ for IndyCar, IMSA rides; talking with four to five teams

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As his season gathers steam, Helio Castroneves said his prospects for finding new rides for 2021 in IMSA and IndyCar also are gaining momentum.

The three-time Indianapolis 500 winner said Monday he is optimistic about landing in either or perhaps a combination of both series when Team Penske and Acura end their DPi partnership after this season.

“A lot of people I spoke with, four to five teams, are interested,” Castroneves said. “Whether it’s doing Indy 500 only, whether it’s pushing to do full time or do the sports cars as well. It’s been a very nice conversation.

LOOKING AHEADTeam Penske drivers seeking new rides for 2021

“I have a lot of respect for all the teams that have been talking, and I feel the same feedback. We just have to wait for their (sponsor) connections, and I’m also looking for some connections on my side as well, so hopefully we’ll be able to put this together and get something very soon.”

Given two decades of success with Penske in IndyCar and IMSA, Castroneves’ resume hardly needs burnishing. But the Brazilian has combined with co-driver Ricky Taylor in the No. 7 Acura DPi to win the past two overall victories at Road America and Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta.

But Castroneves, who doesn’t have a manager, said he has been working the phones hard rather than wait for the strong results to bring in the calls.

“At this point, I feel like I’m the one who needs to be talking to them because people need to know I want to continue racing and understand my desire,” Castroneves, 45, said. “There is opportunity, no question, in both (IndyCar and IMSA), which I’m really happy about it. However, because of the COVID-19, a lot of things sometimes have to be a little delayed. But I’m excited. Whatever the opportunity and whatever destiny guides me, whether IndyCar or sports cars, trust me I’ll be as happy as it could be and doing my 100 percent like I always did.

“It’s like politics, you need to be out there, good news or bad news. People have to make notice of your presence. I’m hustling. I want to continue to keep it going. Hopefully, we’ll have good news very soon.”

The news has been all good lately on track for Castroneves and Taylor, who hope to continue their run Sunday at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

The No. 6 duo has surged to sixth in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship standings, 10 points out of the lead with four races remaining. After thinking there was “no hope” to be competitive after opening the season with three consecutive poor finishes, Taylor now sees an opportunity for a happy ending.

“With the program going away, Helio has won all the big races and given so much back to the team and left such a mark, he’s really part of Penske history,” Taylor said. “For me, it’s been an opportunity of a lifetime to be a part of it. I’d like to leave my little mark as well. Helio has won everything except for a championship.

“Obviously, we’ve won races already together, but we can win a championship now. I think if both of us can do that together and both win our first championship for ‘The Captain,’ that would be an absolute dream come true, and we can tie a bow on it and be happy.”