Five-time NHRA Pro Stock champion Erica Enders can hear her critics barking and howling like never before. For the first time since 2016, when the Elite Motorsports team ran a Mopar, the defending world champion has started the season with at least two first-round losses.

Let them bark and howl; Enders says speed bumps are a part of life, and she's ready to find her groove.

"When you are winners, and you are champions, you have to keep fighting," Enders said. "You have to keep pushing forward to find ways to be better. And sometimes that makes you take a step in the other direction."

And for a driver who has had to fight harder than many of her male counterparts, she knows the drill. Enders has never proclaimed to be the first female driver in Pro Stock, but the veteran driver is the first to win a race and a championship in a male-dominated division.

"Being a female, and I've said this before, you have to claw your way up to ground zero before you're even judged on the same level," Enders explained. "We're just judged under a completely different microscope. So yes, I feel like that drives me and that you have to prove yourself. But now that we have proven ourselves over and over and over, there's nothing left to prove. We are the best, absolutely, and I guarantee you they think that every time they line up to that next to that red Camaro."

Nothing speaks like stats, and they speak loudly. Last season, inspired by the words of a so-called social media journalist, Enders reeled off a season that would impress even the most seasoned of Pro Stock legends, winning 10 of 19 races and qualifying No. 1 six times. She clinched her fourth title in the fifth of six Countdown races, and even with points-and-a-half awarded in the finale at Pomona she amassed a 55-9 win-loss record.

If anything, Enders has proven herself to be human and not a robot behind the wheel, even though she's apparently played the robot role at times.

"As a human, you're the biggest variable every time you get in the car," Enders said. "Honestly, we're working on stuff. We're testing stuff, and I think Steve Torrence's program was the prime example of sometimes how that goes. They won four titles back to back, back to back. Everybody wants to say, well, what's wrong? Blah, blah, blah. They didn't have a bad season."

As far as Enders is concerned, the Elite team isn't either.



"There's one thing I do know is I got the best guys in the world, and I didn't forget how to drive. So the first part of the season, as much as it matters, it just doesn't matter with the point structure. So we'll be just fine.

"I am not worried. Am I pissed? Absolutely. About the way, the last two weeks have gone. But I said it in my interviews last year, and I've said it when we've had crappy seasons. When I raced the Dodge in 2016, we barely could even win a round. The valleys are what make the peaks meaningful."

"It goes both ways when you're on the downside of it too. You wonder how long that drought's going to last. So as I always say, when you're in the winner's circle, I always try to soak up the moments because you never know when the next."

The old saying that you have to take a step back to take three forward, forgive Enders if she doesn't subscribe to this thought process.

"I don't think directionally; we're going backwards right now. We're learning things," she said. "But you can always bet that those guys and myself will come full circle, and we'll be right back where we think we belong. Not to sound arrogant, but we are better than what our scoreboards are implying right now."

Enders doesn't need much motivation to pull out of the statistical funk. There's plenty of spirit inside of her heart, and if that falters, she boasts of having the best "hype girl" in her corner - sister Courtney.

"I think a lot of it comes naturally as far as driving goes and what I have to do and the steps that I have to take now," Enders said. "You have to be so mentally strong. It's exhausting. There are days it's just like Joe Schmo or whoever wakes up, and you just have an off day. You trip over your own feet. You stumble, putting your pants on. It's just the way the world works. And so there are days that I am really down and I have to try extra hard to have to rid my mind of those negative thoughts and whatnot.

"My biggest helper there is Courtney. She is like; I say that she's my hype girl. She believes in me when I don't believe in myself, and she's the last person in my door that I talk to and she is forever pumping me up. So all of that positive mental attitude stuff and visualizing what you want and speaking what you want into existence is cliche. And lame as it sounds, it's freaking really important. So that part is very challenging."

Amidst those howls and the barking that she's blocking out, the champ has a clear message.

"Hold on to your hat and just watch," Enders proclaims. "That's my edited version."