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.
After four cautions within 30 laps and a massive wreck in Turn 1 on lap 176 that resulted in a red flag for the field, the team knew it was time to come in on the next caution lap. Long's team got her out in the first position where she battled with Ross Kenseth for the lead for 38 laps, much to the delight of the crowd.
As the laps wound down, Long bided her time before hitting pit road for fresh rubber a mere six laps from the scheduled checkered flag. It would turn out to be a dramatic finish under Snowball Derby rules, which state that five consecutive green flag laps must be driven before the checkered flag would be waved. A rash of cautions at the end of the race gave Long the time she would need as she wheeled past the top six cars, taking them down one at a time and again narrowly escaping two crashes.
By saving her tires through the middle portion of the race, the teen was able to pass Landon Cassill to take the lead when it mattered most with two laps to go, sailing into the history books becoming the second female to ever win, and the youngest female in track history to take the title.
The importance of Long's victory can't be understated. Besting a stacked field that included Cup Series drivers David Ragan, David Stremme, multi-time Derby winner Augie Grill, as well as up and coming superstars Elliott and Kenseth, means that Long has indeed arrived.
"What a night, what a weekend, what a year," said Long of her achievement. "This is what I've dreamed of ever since I became a racer. It is my family's dream, and I couldn't have done it with my dad, my mom and sisters, my aunts and uncles, and grandparents-all of whom were supporting us in the paddock tonight. I'm speechless, and it's the best Christmas present I could ever get.
Long completed seven starts in the Camping World Truck Series, with three Top 20 finishes and Top 20 qualifying grid starts at all races started. She hopes to race for a full Rookie season in 2011. Female or not, teenager or not, Johanna Long is a racer who can get the job done and that's going to be good for the sport of short track racing, mark our words.