LAS VEGAS, NV - Erica Enders-Stevens raced to victory in the K&N Horsepower Challenge, closing out an action packed Saturday at the SummitRacing.com NHRA Nationals at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
In other racing on Saturday, Antron Brown (Top Fuel), Courtney Force (Funny Car) and Jeg Coughlin (Pro Stock) earned No. 1 qualifying positions and will lead their categories into Sunday's 11 a.m. eliminations at the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series' fourth stop of the year.
Enders-Stevens entered the K&N Horsepower Challenge field as an alternate for the sidelined Mike Edwards but took full advantage and beat fan-vote winner Dave Connolly in the final with a performance of 6.646 seconds at 208.39 mph to pocket a $50,000 paycheck. The No. 3 seed was runner-up to Allen Johnson at last season's bonus event, but she piloted her Elite Motorsports Chevy Camaro to her first win in the K&N Horsepower Challenge, becoming the first female winner of the special bonus race.
"We've had a great hot rod all year and it really came together for us two weeks ago in Gainesville," said Enders-Stevens. "We set the national record but lost in the final round on a holeshot, so it was great to give something back to my guys."
The final with Connolly pitted Enders-Stevens against her former crew chief, a match up that both wanted to take for bragging rights. The Houston native brushed it off, mentioning that it was her job to focus only on her lane and run.
"Part of being a professional athlete is having to put personal things aside for business, and it is a true challenge and something I work hard on," she said. "It's about me getting up on the wheel and the guys putting a great race car underneath me to get from point A to point B."
In Top Fuel, Brown secured his first No. 1 qualifying position of the season and 35th of his career with his 3.768 at 325.14 in his Matco Tools dragster. Brown's 3.7-second run was one of five 3.7s during the final qualifying session and the Don Schumacher Racing driver snatched the top position from series points leader Doug Kalitta on the last pass of the final session.
"You could see as the track got tighter the crew chiefs were getting it together and we saw some phenomenal runs," Brown said. "Doug put that 3.77 on the board right in front of us, so I knew it was time to get to work. We had just been picking at it, but I saw my boys go into the box and make some adjustments I just said, 'Uh oh, here we go. This is where it gets good,' and it just went A to B."
Brown noted the stiff competition of the Top Fuel category so far in 2014 and the runs from qualifying showed a similar pattern.
"It's going to be a fight like this all year," Brown said. "It's not going to be just the fastest car, but the most efficient car that makes great laps the most often. We're looking forward to that challenge."
Brown will face Mike Strasburg in the first round of eliminations. The 2012 world champ has two wins at Las Vegas including last season's fall event and will be going for his second straight win at the track.
Kalitta, who won the Amalie Motor Oil Gatornationals two weeks ago, qualified second with a 3.775 pass at 321.88 in his Mac Tools dragster. The Ypsilanti, Mich. native held the No. 1 qualifying position for one pass before Brown's top run. Kalitta will face Steve Faria in the first round.
In Funny Car, Force set track records in both elapsed time and speed with her performance of 4.006 at 325.37 in her Traxxas Ford Mustang Funny Car. Force's top speed was also the fastest speed for both nitro classes.
"I was waiting for dad (John Force) or Matt Hagan to take it from me," Force said. "When I got out of the car, I didn't realize the speed was 325 mph. It's pretty (amazing to see) the 325 mph run was not only the best in Funny Car, but Top Fuel, as well."
Force has struggled to open the season but feels that her team may have turned a corner following a semifinal showing in Gainesville and the No. 1 qualifier here.
"We struggled a little bit at the beginning of the season," said Force, who was runner-up at both Las Vegas events last season. "Coming out here, it felt good to have a consistent race car back and be at a track that we've had some good luck at in the past."
The 2012 Automobile of Southern California Road to the Future Award winner secured her first No. 1 qualifier of the season and fourth of her career. She earned a matchup with Jon Capps on Sunday.
Force's 16-time world champion father John qualified No. 2 with his 4.017 run at 317.87. The Castrol GTX High Mileage Ford Mustang driver will face Paul Lee in the first round of eliminations.
Tommy Johnson, Jr., Del Worsham and Matt Hagan rounded out the top five. Bob Tasca III entered the event fourth in Funny Car points, but failed to qualify.
In Pro Stock, Coughlin topped the leaderboard after the first day of qualifying with a 6.625 at 208.78 in his JEGS.com/Mopar Dodge Dart and the run held up through Saturday's two sessions, giving him his 20th career No. 1 qualifying position and first of the season.
"I'm really proud to hold onto the No. 1 position," Coughlin said. "I think it really shows quite a bit from our team. We've been hustling the last month-and-a-half getting these new cars ready."
The defending world champ will meet No. 16 seed Mark Wolfe in the first round. Chris McGaha, who secured his first career No. 1 qualifier at Phoenix, was close to a second top spot but will settle for the No. 2 seed in his Harlow Sammons of Odessa Chevy Camaro. The Odessa, Texas native ran 6.625 at 208.07 and will open eliminations against Rodger Brogdon.
Enders-Stevens, Connolly and Jason Line claimed top-five positions in Pro Stock.
NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series
The Strip at Las Vegas