Long paying her dues in NASCAR

Most race car drivers don’t have the good fortune of jumping in the best equipment their series has to offer.

In the old days, aspiring drivers had to pay dues by driving in less-than-competitive equipment before moving through the ranks to prove their staying power while waiting for better opportunities to materialize.

When Jeff Gordon entered the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series with the No. 24 team, Hendrick Motorsports was already at the top of the sport. Jimmie Johnson was afforded the same courtesy nearly a decade later.

And now, Danica Patrick’s stock car learning curve has been accelerated by racing top-rate cars for the last three seasons with first JR Motorsports in the Nationwide Series and now Stewart-Haas Racing on the Sprint Cup side of the garage.

While Patrick is still a bit of novelty as the only woman racer currently in the Sprint Cup Series, will other females that follow in her tracks be as fortunate?

Johanna Long has exhibited tremendous potential in stock cars. In 2010, Long became just the second woman in 42 years to win the Snowball Derby – one of the most prestigious annual Late Model events. Tammy Jo Kirk won the race in 1994.

At 20, Long has shown solid car control. Unlike many female racers, she is fearless behind the wheel. But for the last three seasons, she has yet to put together a full-time program in NASCAR. After two partial seasons in the Camping World Truck Series, Long ran 21 of 33 Nationwide Series race for ML Motorsports in 2012.

Darrell Wallace Jr., currently the only black racer among NASCAR’S top three touring series, finally earned a full-time ride in the Truck series with Kyle Busch Motorsports. For the last four seasons, "Bubba" was a development driver with Joe Gibbs Racing before receiving his big break this year.

From the ownership side, Gibbs, who put a one-race deal together for Wallace with the Defy Diabetes initiative, believes securing sponsorship – particularly for women – “is going to be easier” in the future.

“It’s a struggle to get sponsorship period until you hit the big time with a driver,” Gibbs said. “So, I think that’s just part of the normal struggle that you have, but I think we’ve been fortunate that we’ve got some partners really helping.

“It’s going to be a lot easier with Darrell as soon as he gets out there and gets in front of people. There’s going to be an excitement about that just like with Danica right now and so you see sponsors starting to flock over there.”

Wallace, who considers Long a personal friend, agrees with Gibbs that performance will tip the scales toward any driver. And having raced against her in the past in the Nationwide Series, Wallace knows Long’s potential.

“For her, in the state of mind that she’s in, it’s going to be delivering harder to really stand out,” Wallace said. “I’m not knocking her racing here, I’m just saying that (Ryan) Blaney went out and finished seventh in his racing debut in (the Tommy Baldwin Jr.) car and that was pretty good. And that’s what she’s going to have to do.

“She has to use that equipment to the max but then use her skills to produce better finishes and that’s going to be the biggest key. I love Johanna Long to death. We’re good friends now. I really hope that something breaks for her. But she’s going to have to step up to the plate and take a big swing at it.”

Here lies the rub. MLM does the best it can with the limited resources it has but being based in Indiana doesn’t help its cause. Even so, Long outqualified Patrick eight times during the 2012 Nationwide Series season and finished ahead of her in seven events. Regardless of Long’s talent, she was constantly overshadowed by the GoDaddy girl.

Toward the end of the season, Long caught a break – the team purchased used cars from Richard Childress Racing and leased Earnhardt Childress engines. However, Long does not expect to have a new car until Las Vegas and currently receives no engineering support from RCR.

For Simona de Silvestro, patience and persistence paid off in the IndyCar Series. During her first three seasons on the tour with HVM, her equipment left a lot to be desired. The 24-year-old Thun, Switzerland native experienced 14 mechanical failures in 46 starts and was parked in last year’s Indy 500 after 10 laps for not being able to maintain minimum speed. But she didn’t complain. She simply kept her head down and raced. Now, de Silvestro has earned a ride with KV Racing Technology and will have veteran Tony Kanaan to rely on for guidance.

While Patrick earned the lion’s share of attention in IndyCar during de Silvestro’s first two years on the circuit, she believes her former competitor came up the hard way as well through the open-wheel ranks. And now, Patrick is getting the opportunity she deserves.

“I don’t think Danica had the best equipment when she first started racing over here either,” de Silvestro said. “When you start off, any driver has to go through this. I had three years with HVM. I learned a lot. Now comes the opportunity with KV. It’s a step up. I think any driver has to go through that whether it’s me or Johanna.

“To say Danica has always had the best equipment, that’s not the right thing. She’s had good equipment but I think she’s earned the right to be up there and be running with these teams.

“That’s what racing is about. Doing the most with what you’ve got. Last year for me was a real long season, but I tried to do my best and I feel lucky to be driving in IndyCar. You always have to think about that. There’s so many drivers that don’t have a seat and wish they were in your place.”

With the seat time Long received at a variety of tracks last season, she too is encouraged entering 2013. This weekend at Daytona, Long will drive the same car she raced to a 12th-place finish at the track in July.

“People are recognizing that I’m here for a reason and doing the best I can working with my team,” Long said. “And we’re doing really well.”

Long will continue a 21-race schedule, but will mix up the races a bit by skipping Bristol and adding Phoenix next month and the Charlotte fall race to her program.

“It’s crazy how much confidence I’ve built through (2012),” Long said. “I feel 100 percent confident in myself and knowing what I can do in a race car. That’s why I’m so ready for the 2013 season. I feel if we can start where we ended off in 2012 then we’ll have a real good year.

“We learned a lot and I feel like that’s going to help us out.”