Erica Enders-Stevens is well aware of the history on the line at this weekend’s 50th annual Auto Club NHRA Finals at historic Auto Club Raceway at Pomona. But her more immediate concern is trying to hold off two-time Pro Stock world champion Jason Line.
After winning the most recent event in Las Vegas, Enders-Stevens’ fifth win in her banner 2014 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series season, she now holds a 17-point lead over Line heading into the final event of the Mello Yello Countdown to the Championship.
On top of that Enders-Stevens could become the first female to claim a Pro Stock world championship in NHRA history, which would be a massive achievement for the driver who was also the first female to win an event in Pro Stock. But Enders-Stevens knows her focus must zero in on keeping one step ahead of Line in her Chevy Camaro, never an easy task considering his impressive resume.
“It’s an interesting separation because you can’t get too ahead of yourself and dwell on what’s at stake, but at the same time, I mean, I’ve never been in this position in Pro Stock, and neither have any of the guys on my team,” Enders-Stevens said. “It’s definitely an interesting and awesome position to be in. But I try to just stay calm about it and focus on just one round, one at a time, and just going after it and doing our best and having fun most importantly.”
Team Summit driver Line expressed excitement for the opportunity in front of him.
“Last year, we came to this race 71 points back, and we really had no chance – to come into this race 17 points out of the lead this time around is nothing, it’s a single round,” said Line, who won his first Pro Stock championship in 2006 and followed up with the 2011 title.
“Our approach is pretty simple, really; we’re going there to win the race. The Summit Racing team certainly has the ability to do that. Anything is possible, and I feel really good about this weekend. The Summit Racing team is happy to be in this position, and we’re all very excited for the opportunity to have a really cool finish to the year,” said Line, a 35-time Pro Stock winner on the tour in 73 final rounds who has claimed four victories this season in eight finals. “I think you have to think about the task at hand and also about the future, and we are certainly thinking about both. In this class, you have to think farther ahead than just one week, but right now, the week ahead is pretty exciting.”
The event marks the 50th anniversary of the Auto Club NHRA Finals at the historic facility and the race to the championship between Enders-Stevens and Line will be one of the marquee attractions.
Dave Connolly trails Enders-Stevens by 84 points and is still in championship contention as is Shane Gray at 111 points back, but Line and Enders-Stevens appear to be headed on a collision course for the race to the world championship. Line took command in the loaded Pro Stock class over the summer, winning three straight races in his Summit Racing Equipment Chevy Camaro to take over the points lead.
But Enders-Stevens claimed the semi victory in their last meeting and then finished things off with an event win, taking the top spot into Pomona. Line, though, remains thrilled considering what is at stake heading into the Auto Club NHRA Finals.
The pressure is certainly there for Enders-Stevens as well as Line, in part because of the historical aspect. She admits it is hard not to think about what it would mean to become the first female world champion in Pro Stock, but Enders-Stevens is also using that as a driving force in her title quest.
“At the end of the day I guess it would be very awesome to be able to make history,” Enders-Stevens said. “It would just show any other female that maybe even had a little bit of doubt that they weren’t capable or whatever that I’m a perfect example of a normal kid, through hard work and certainly surrounding myself with the right people and having such a solid support group, that anything is possible. I hope that’s the message that comes across to them.”
Line and Enders-Stevens will both have to concern themselves with the rest of the talented Pro Stock field, one that includes Countdown participants Allen Johnson, Jeg Coughlin, Vincent Nobile, V Gaines, Chris McGaha and rookie Jonathan Gray. Enders-Stevens maintains she will be ready for whatever situation is thrown at her in Pomona this weekend because of her confidence in a team led by crew chiefs Rick and Rickie Jones.
“This is the first time in my professional career that I have had such a solid group of guys that stands behind me and has my back,” Enders-Stevens said. “That makes my job as a driver a lot easier. It’s a team deal and it’s just a really unique atmosphere, and I’m really proud and honored to be their driver. But they have shown exactly what they are made of this year, and when it comes down to crunch time, everybody pulls their weight, and it’s an awesome environment to work in.”
Seven-time world champion Tony Schumacher is closing in on an eighth world championship in Top Fuel, winning three times in the Countdown. Schumacher also has four wins at the Auto Club NHRA Finals, but will be challenged by the likes of recent Las Vegas winner Spencer Massey, Vegas No. 1 qualifier and event runner-up J.R. Todd, Doug Kalitta, Steve Torrence and reigning world champion Shawn Langdon. Several other drivers will be looking for a race victory, including 2012 champ Antron Brown, four-time runner-up Brittany Force, Winternationals winner Khalid alBalooshi and U.S Nationals champ Richie Crampton.
In Funny Car, Hagan took home the Auto Club NHRA Finals victory last season, but lost out on a championship to reigning champ John Force. Hagan enters the final race with a 21-point lead over Force and is primed to make a run for a second world championship crown and deny Force a record 17th title. Force’s daughter Courtney – a two-time winner in the Countdown playoffs – is still is a longshot for the championship at the controls of her Traxxas Ford Mustang. The list of potential event winners in Funny Car is deep, and includes three-time season winner Alexis DeJoria, Tommy Johnson Jr., five-time season winner Robert Hight, Ron Capps, Tim Wilkerson, Las Vegas winner Del Worsham, and Cruz Pedregon.
The 2014 world championship in Pro Stock Motorcycle is now a “two hog” race and will be settled between Screamin’ Eagle Vance & Hines Harley-Davidson teammates Andrew Hines and Eddie Krawiec. Hines currently holds the points lead over Krawiec and stretched his lead to 92 points by winning in Las Vegas. It will set up an exciting duel in Pomona, as both riders are looking for their respective fourth world championship titles.
As part of the 50th anniversary celebration, NHRA will feature many of the sport’s greatest legends and those drivers will share some of their favorite memories from 50 years of the Auto Club NHRA Finals. “The King of Speed” Kenny Bernstein, “Big Daddy” Don Garlits, “TV” Tommy Ivo, Tom “The Mongoose” McEwen, Ed “The Ace” McCulloch, Shirley “Cha Cha” Muldowney and Don “The Snake” Prudhomme will be featured during the event and participate in a series of special NHRA Legends Chats and a special autograph session on Saturday afternoon in the popular Hot Rod Junction.
The NHRA Legends Chats will run from 10 a.m. until noon on Saturday and the special legends autograph session will take place between Saturday’s pro qualifying sessions. Fans can attend the Legends Chats and autograph session by obtaining a special commemorative 50th Anniversary NHRA Legends Card, which will be available on a first come, first served basis at the Hot Rod Junction.
The NHRA contributed to this report.