Teen driver Johanna Long climbing ranks

Unlike some other teenagers who have preceded her into NASCAR, Johanna Long seems to be quietly heading toward her series debut.

Long, 18 and a native of Pensacola, Fla., will make her first run in one of NASCAR’s three major touring series on July 23 at O’Reilly Raceway Park. As she prepares for her inaugural Camping World Truck Series outing, it’s worth noting that while Long may be somewhat stealthily making her first foray into NASCAR’s upper tiers, she bears watching.

After all, like others who have moved into NASCAR’s elite ranks, she has been leaving her mark on racing for years.

She’s the girl who took the pole position for the 2009 Snowball Derby that Kyle Busch was also running in and the one now following in Busch’s footsteps in the Billy Ballew Motorsports Camping World Truck Series entry – but don’t point out to her she is following his path. That merely adds to the pressure of the task she faces.

For years, fans have pointed to female after female as the one who has the chance to make it. And once Danica Patrick made a name for herself in the open-wheel ranks, media and fans discussed who would become the “Danica Patrick of NASCAR.” Now, Patrick herself is trying to take that title, running a limited schedule in the Nationwide ranks.

For Long, her stats speak for themselves – regardless of her gender.

Certainly, she’ll be compared with the female racers who have come before her in NASCAR. And in that respect, she seems to have a bit of a head start. She is taking the wheel of a strong team, one accustomed to winning races and to transitioning between drivers. She has done her homework, testing with the team in preparation for the move and talking with others who have undergone the transition from Late Models to Trucks.

Just a quick glance at her resume makes it clear Long is the real deal – in both desire and accomplishments.

After all, she has been building toward this chance since she was kindergartener.

“My dad raced when I was a little girl, and at 5 years old, I started asking to drive a go-kart and he kept holding it off and holding it off until I was 8,” she says, her voice still filled with the enthusiasm it must have held then. “So I finally got started when I was 8.”

She raced go-karts for four years, then moved to Legends, then to the more comfortable realm of her father’s Late Model world.

Perhaps she bears close comparison to Joey Logano – another 18-year-old who broke into NASCAR.

Like Logano, she’s a proven winner against all types of competition. Like Logano, she’s trying to do her homework and be prepared. She’s hungry for a chance, but realistic about all that entails.

She’s simply ready.

In 2009, Long raced from January until December in a variety of series and events. She ran in everything from American Speed Association to Pro Late Model to the Pro All Stars Series to a couple of Auto Racing Club of America events. In 38 outings, she earned 27 top-10 finishes. Seventeen of those were top fives. Five of them were wins.

She won the Blizzard Series championship in Pensacola, as well as the Gulf Coast championship covering Mobile, Ala., and Pensacola. She also won the PLM championship at Five Flags Speedway in Pensacola in 2008.

Still, she’s not counting on any instant success in her limited runs this season. It appears she’ll have three races with Ballew, an owner accustomed to gambling on young talent – and one who wins with an assortment of drivers.

“I’m really excited to have Johanna in our truck at ORP,” Ballew said. “She’s extremely talented and has been very successful up to this point. The Truck series is a great venue for her to grow as a driver. She’s got all the tools to be successful, and I think this will be a good opportunity for her to develop her talent.”

She sounds thrilled with the chance.

“It means so much to me and my family, definitely,” she says. “We’ve been working so hard to get to this point and now I get the opportunity to see what I can do.”

She’s not taking the opening lightly, either.

Long not only spoke with drivers who have made similar transitions, but she also tested for two days at Gresham Motorsports Park in Jefferson, Ga.

And though she doesn’t seem intimidated by the high-powered competition she’ll face, Long shows the respect she holds for the sport she hopes to one day call a career.

“Just getting used to it, as far as my first race, getting used to everything and being out there with them because they’re the best of the best and I’ve got to go out there and compete with them,” she says of the transition.

Does her resume of success give her a little boost of confidence heading into the race? Perhaps. Mainly, just like any other young, new racer with a history of success – male or female – Long just wants to make the most of her chance.

And use it to show what she can do.

“You’re going to the next step and you’ve got to earn respect from other drivers,” she says. “(I’m going to) just go out there and be calm and race as hard as I can.”