No Long-shot, Johanna Long Wins 43rd Derby

Debris littered the half-mile oval one final time Sunday atFive Flags Speedway.

This time, though, no crew was about to clean it up.

Pensacola teenager Johanna Long shed tears of joy after hoistingthe Tom Dawson trophy to celebrate an historic victory in the 43rd annualSnowball Derby.

Long became the youngest, and just the second, woman to winthe Derby in one of the wildest finishes short-track racing’s most prestigious eventhas seen.

She joins Eddie Mercer (2005), Dickie Davis (1971,’73) andWayne Niedecken Sr. (’68) as hometown heroes to find Victory Lane at the Derby.

“It’s absolutely amazing,” Long, 18, said. “I can’t believeI did it. We worked so hard on this.”

Long shifted into another gear late when several of Sunday’s16 cautions began to wave as the Derby neared its completion and drivers got antsy.

Fresh tires allowed her to pass Landon Cassill on Lap 316for a lead she never relinquished, but not before Cassill went for a spin onthe back straightaway and an ugly collision ensued behind him.

Cassill and Long briefly exchanged words with in VictoryLane but they weren’t combative.

“She had new tires and was way faster than us,” said the21-year-old Iowan, who finished fourth. “To run fourth here is a greataccomplishment. I know I can win this.”

Five Flags’ asphalt is notorious for chewing up tires and spittingthem out. This edition of the Derby was no different.

“(Cassill) understood,” said Long, who led 23 laps Sunday,including the final 13. “I had good tires and he didn’t.”

Several leaders lost their shot at racing immortality by foolishlybelieving their tires would hold up.

Chase Elliott, leading at the time, saw an unprecedentedSnowflake 100-Derby weekend sweep fall by the wayside when Cassill spun him onLap 298.

Before a green-white-checkered finish could be determined, thetower’s official ruling was that the drivers had to complete five total lapsunder green.

Long sat outside the top five.

“I was nervous,” she said. “I was very concerned.”

You couldn’t tell from the way she drove.

She blew past Casey Smith and followed Cassill by then-leaderDonnie Wilson on Lap 313.

Wilson was a terrific story Sunday. With Freddie Query, Long’sold crew chief, in his tower, Wilson made a valiant run playing the dark-horse roleSunday.

“Our track position was real good,” he said. “It was justour pit stops put us in a bad position. We still finished in the top five, soI’ll take it. I’m not gonna complain.”

Long finally won’t have to either. She was perfect on the green-white-checkeredrestart, pulling away from Wilson and never having to sweat in the final twolaps.

Long stuck her fist outside the window into the cool air andpumped it as the checkered flag swayed in the wind.

A sometimes frustrating season was erased in a blink Sunday.

She came into the Derby winless this year. Long gainedinvaluable experience while competing in seven NASCAR’s trucks series races,but her million-dollar smile paid the price for it.

Her confidence never wavered, though.

“I knew the team was working hard,” Long said. “They wantedto win just as much as I did. We finally did it.”

The homeschooled senior has faced many challenging teststhis year. In her final exam, though, Long passed with flying colors.

“There’s been a lotta learning this year. It’s been tough,”said Donald Long, Johanna’s father and car owner. “We’ve made a few mistakeshere and there, but we wanna race for a living. Hopefully, this gets us to thatpoint.”

The Derby is never a bad place to start.