Johanna Long Hopes to Keep Improving After Impressive Nationwide Run at Richmond

Ben Montedonico@@NASCARBRBenContributor IIISeptember 10, 2012

Johanna Long has had plenty of reasons to smile in her first NASCAR Nationwide Series campaign
Johanna Long has had plenty of reasons to smile in her first NASCAR Nationwide Series campaignSean Gardner/Getty Images

It didn't end as she had hoped.

But for a brief time during Friday night's NASCAR Nationwide Series race at Richmond, Johanna Long showed everybody why she deserves her share of the racing spotlight.

Long has spent her rookie campaign in the Nationwide Series racing a partial schedule for the overachieving ML Motorsports team and learning the ropes while staying under the radar.

"I like to be under the radar, for sure," Long says of her quiet yet consistent 2012 season. "I feel like right now that's really good for our team and for me, as a driver, because I'm learning."

"I didn't want a lot of pressure on me this year," she continues. "This is good for me. We're running decent and now people are starting to take notice."

And take notice people did Friday night at Richmond, where Long started eighth and quickly worked her way inside the top five, passing current Sprint Cup points leader and the driver with the most wins on the Sprint Cup circuit in 2012, Denny Hamlin.

"It was awesome," Long says of passing Hamlin and running up front. "It's just fun racing up front and knowing that I can do it, that I do belong up there and that I can race with the best."

For young drivers, having an elevated level of confidence is crucial for improvement on the race track. For Long, Friday's race went a long way in that department.

"It really helped my confidence level, for sure," Long said. "My confidence level hasn't been this high for a very long time. Now I know that I do belong there and I can race those guys, just like anyone else."

It sure didn't hurt that Long got compliments from a pair of Sprint Cup stars. Hamlin said over his radio during the race that Long was going to "force me into Nationwide retirement," while Jeff Burton tweeted that Long "deserves a top 10 ride."

But right now, Long is perfectly content to keep learning and racing for the little team that has given her this big chance to shine.

"ML Motorsports has given me this awesome opportunity, and we're working on everything," Long says. "These guys are probably some of the hardest working guys in the garage."

"Hopefully one day I'll be able to move up into the Cup Series," she continues. "But right now it's all about this ML Motorsports team and finishing out the year."

As far as learning is concerned, Long says that improvements in her communication with crew chief Mark Gutekunst are what has attributed to the recent uptick in her performance.

That, and former NASCAR Nationwide Series champion David Green.

"He's by my side every weekend," Long says of her driver coach/spotter. "He knows so much about the Nationwide Series and NASCAR. He knows what I should expect every time I get to a race track and what I should do different.

"He's definitely the guy that's been by my side the whole year. He's given me some great advice and he's definitely helped me grow as a driver."

While the 20-year-old Pensacola, Fla., native's long-term goals include making it to the Sprint Cup Series and to help teach young girls to "believe in themselves" no matter what, her short-term goals are to keep showing up to the track and notching top-15s....with hopefully a few top 10s and top fives sprinkled in.

"[I have to] give my 110 percent every time I get on that race track, hope for some more good runs and show everyone what we're made of," she says. "I want a lot more top 15 finishes and I would love to run in the top five and top 10 again.

"We've just got to keep going and hopefully we can keep our momentum up."

In order to do that, Long and her ML Motorsports team needs to string together a few more races like Friday night's, minus the bad luck that kept her from earning the finish she and the team deserved.

"I was working my way up to the front, and I blew a right-front [tire]," Long says of the misfortune that took her out of contention at Richmond. "That was devastating for me because we had such a good run going."

Yet, in spite of that heartbreaking flat tire that took her out of the race just prior to the halfway point, Long has plenty of positives to take away from Friday night's race.

And that's where her focus is.

"It was a cool race," Long says of Friday night. "It was so much fun. I finally ran how we deserved to run, and it was just a race that I won't forget, for sure."

Indeed, Long says that now, as Friday night was the high point of her brief NASCAR Nationwide Series career up to this point. But if Long's supporters and believers have their way, it's only a matter of time before their driver begins having many more of these races she won't forget, as well as a lot more fun.

It's not a matter of "if" that day comes, but rather "when." That "when" could come sooner rather than later, and when it does, Friday night may be little more than a blip on the radar for the young driver.

Or perhaps it will mark the beginning of something very special.

 All quotes were obtained first-hand unless otherwise noted.