That's right...move over Danica Patrick...Johanna Long is coming to town. Long is only 18 years old but in early December captured one of the most prestigious short track titles in the country: the 43rd Annual Snowball Derby, held at Five Flags Speedway in Pensacola, Florida, in early December.
Circle Track has been keeping an eye, from a distance, on Long's exploits for a year or so now and we've been impressed. The teen seems to have abilities behind the wheel that belie her years and the Snowball Derby is proof. Her victory makes her the youngest female driver in Derby history but at the same time only the second female driver to ever wear the crown. The first was Tammy Jo Kirk back in 1994. Kirk went on to a short lived career in the then Craftsman Truck Series, however, for whatever reason we feel that Ms. Long has the potential to become the female face of NASCAR that the sanction is currently seeking.
Danica Patrick has yet to live up to her billing, but in her defense she is an Open Wheel driver. That's not a slam against IndyCar drivers, but Juan Pablo Montoya took several years to adapt to the big, heavy stock cars and he was a multi-race Formula 1 winner. Patrick is not. Long's pedigree is stock cars, lots of laps in stock cars. Again, something Patrick doesn't bring to the table.
Long entered rarified air, etching her name in the history books alongside NASCAR winners like Darrell Waltrip, Kyle Busch, and Jeff Purvis, by winning the Derby, nicknamed the "Superbowl of Short Track Racing." Wheeling the No. 10 Panhandle Paving & Grading entry through 14 cautions and several lead changes, Long brought it home with expert driving and impressive pit strategy in a dramatic 5-lap green flag finish to take the checkered flag.
Her strong qualifying run in the No. 10 of 16.420 seconds placed her fourth on the starting grid in her third appearance at the Snowball Derby. Fresh off a run in the season-ending Camping World Truck Series race at Miami-Homestead Speedway, where she posted solid practice runs and a 12th place finish the day prior in the Snowflake 100 while working through tough wind conditions and cool temps, the Blizzard Series Champion was ready for the night's challenging 300-lap race.
Not surprisingly the action was fast and furious from the drop of the green flag. Long spent the majority of the race in and around the Top 10. Her crew and spotter knew that they had to make their tires last through the mid section of the race to allow her a shot at the win. It was a simple yet crafty pit strategy that many a regional touring racer could learn from-put yourself in position to win. Long's team members knew that fresh tires at the end of the race could help her drive to the lead. As such they were content to hang around the middle of the pack during the middle of the race, doing their best to stay out of trouble.