(Photos courtesy NHRA)

NHRA: Erica Enders still has a lot to race for in what has been a very difficult season

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Erica Enders would like nothing more than to give herself a belated birthday present at this weekend’s AAA Texas Fall Nationals at Texas Motorplex in suburban Dallas.

And what a present it would be, one that would be so welcome in a season that has been anything but welcoming

Enders, who turned 33 on Oct. 8, has had one of the most frustrating seasons any drag racer has ever seen.

In 2014, she won six races and her first NHRA Pro Stock championship.

In 2015, she won nine races and repeated as Pro Stock champ.

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Erica Enders

But 2016 has been a whole other story. She has yet to win even one race this season. She also failed to qualify for the first race of the six-race Countdown to the Championship playoffs.

Admittedly, it has been a rough transition for Enders and Elite Motorsports’ switch from Chevrolet power and adapting to Dodge/Mopar power under the hood this season, as well as the changeover in the class from carbureted motors to Electronic Fuel Injection.

And, if she has another poor outing this weekend, she could wind up being mathematically eliminated from continuing on in the Countdown.

That’s why a win on Sunday would help Enders and her team forget about so many first round exits (11 in the first 21 races), the DNF at Charlotte and other disappointments that have occurred this season.

“The nature of this sport is full of peaks and valleys,” Enders said in a media release. “Believe me, I’ve experienced it all out here and compared to years I’ve had in the past, this season hasn’t been that bad.

“Certainly you get used to winning and even dominating at times. That’s why we all work so hard. But every driver, every champion out here has experienced years like this. The good news is our team hasn’t fallen apart and I know we’ll come back better than ever. Right now, we’re just focused on finishing the year strong.”

Enders comes into this weekend ranked last (10th) in the Pro Stock standings, a massive 285 points behind Pro Stock points leader Jason Line.

To stay eligible in the Countdown, Enders would have to leave the Texas Motorplex on Sunday less than 260 points behind Line or anyone else who might assume the points lead after this weekend.

Racing at the Ennis, Texas facility may be just the thing Enders needs. First, she’s a Texas native, having grown up near Houston.

Second, she has raced at the Ennis facility for 25 years, since she was an eight-year-old competitor in Junior Dragster racing.

Plus, she is the defending champion of this race.

So, in a sense, Enders would probably love to celebrate a quarter-century of racing at the Motorplex with a big win Sunday.

“I’m a Texas girl through and through,” Enders said. “I always love being home and the Motorplex was pretty much my second home track next to Houston Raceway Park, so yes, this race is very important to me.

“We were on such a roll last year and winning this race put us in a really good position to clinch our second championship with just two races left. We were able to get it done the following race in Las Vegas so obviously the win in Texas was pivotal.

“I loved getting the cowboy hat and belt buckle they give the winners also. That had always been on my drag racing bucket list.”

This week, even with knowing she’s all but eliminated from earning a third consecutive championship, there’s still plenty to win for Enders.

“I’m going to have fun this weekend,” Enders said. “We’ll have lots of friends and family around, including a bunch of people from Oklahoma, which is where our shop is located.

“So it’ll be a good time. And we’ll do our best to race hard also.”

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

Helio Castroneves IMSA IndyCar
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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.”