The Best That Never Were: Johanna Long

Thanks to a suggestion from one of my colleagues here at Pit Box Press, I’m going to be taking a monthly look at a driver who in my opinion should’ve been a superstar, but for one reason or another didn’t pan out. There’s many reasons this could happen, such as financial strife, ride quality, or even medical conditions and injuries.

The very first driver on my list has a list of accomplishments that would make many veterans in the sport envious, and unfortunately she ended up being unfairly overshadowed by another female competitor who had more name recognition and better ride quality.

I’m talking of course about Pensacola, Florida’s own Johanna Robbins, but most of us will always know her as Johanna Long. 

Johanna’s father Donald is a former late model racer in Florida, and she wanted to follow in her dad’s footsteps from a very young age. She began racing go karts at eight and quickly moved to racing late models herself at twelve. By the time she turned eighteen, Johanna had won the 2008 Gulf Coast Late Model Championship and a track championship at the famed Five Flags Speedway in Pensacola. These wins started to catch the attention of the racing world, of course. 

But it was nothing compared to what she did in 2009.

At seventeen, she competed in 38 races across several series across the country, including ARCA and ASA, posting some serious results. She won five times, had seventeen top fives and twenty-seven top tens. If you’re doing the math at home, don’t bother, I already did. Johanna Long finished in the top ten in a staggering 71% of those events. That’s just mind boggling to me. She also won the Blizzard Series title in Pensacola and the pole in her first attempt at running the Snowball Derby.

2010 saw her make her first NASCAR starts, running a total of seven races in the Camping World Truck Series. Long ran three for Billy Ballew Motorsports before the team was shut down due to financial reasons. She posted finishes of 17th, 20th, and 34th in those starts, which is pretty impressive for a young driver on a cash strapped team. She ran four more events for her family owned race team, Panhandle Motorsports that season. Her best finish was 20th, but she railed off a ninth place qualifying effort at Texas Motorspeedway. 

Arguably the biggest triumph of her racing career was right around the corner. The 43rd running of the Snowball Derby in 2010 would be the race that launched Johanna Long into phenom territory. Long restarted the race with ten laps to go in tenth place. Using pit strategy, cautions and a little bit of luck, she found herself on the back bumper of Landon Cassill coming to the end. The young driver used the most tried and true of moves and utilized the “bump-and-run” on Cassill to get the win. She became the second woman to ever win the Snowball Derby that night. 

Why Rick Hendrick, Joe Gibbs, or any Cup owner for that matter, didn’t sign her to a development deal then, I’ll never understand. If you watch that race, which I did for my research, you can clearly see the talent and guts she had behind the wheel. 2011 saw Long try and compete full time in the truck series and win Rookie of the Year, which I honestly believe she could have. Sponsorship fell through though for her family owned race team and she was only able to run eleven races, picking up a career best 11th place finish at Texas.

For whatever reason, the big teams didn’t come calling. Instead, Johanna signed a two year deal in 2012 to run the Xfinity Series with ML Motorsports. Owned and operated by Mary Louise Miller, a gutsy team owner with a total of twenty employees working out of Warsaw, Indiana, Miller truly seemed to believe in Johanna and told ESPN as much in a 2012 article. “We knew she would be able to succeed in every possible way as a racer, as a human being,” Miller said, “and we knew the first year would be maybe a little more of a challenge for her. We felt like the first year would be a learning experience for her as well as us, getting to know her and what she wanted.” 

Of course, 2012 was also the year that IndyCar star Danica Patrick shifted over to NASCAR and made her debut in the series as well. Unfortunately for the then 20 year old Johanna, this meant constant comparisons and unfair questions were thrown her way. In fact, in the same ESPN article that interviewed her owner, Long was asked by the writer if anyone had ever gone so long without asking “the Danica question.” The reporter went 20 minutes and 43 seconds by his own admission. She played it off and smiled about it, but if I were her the whole thing would’ve made me a little irate. 

Amidst all the Danica talk and the hoopla surrounding the two drivers, they had to race. Being mentored by former Xfinity Series Champion David Green, driving engines leased from Richard Childress Racing and carrying a small team on her back, Johanna had a lot to prove. 

And prove it she did. 

In 21 starts (funding was an issue of course), she qualified for every race she entered, posting an average start of 19.6 and an average finish of 23.6. To post average starts and finishes inside the top twenty five in an underfunded race car in NASCAR’s second highest level of competition is nothing short of impressive. She even managed to finish the year in the top twenty in points, despite not starting all the races. At Richmond that season, she had yet another run that should have served as a notice to the top teams in the sport.

Johanna qualified 8th, a career best. She then followed that up by driving up into the top five, passing three time Daytona 500 Winner Denny Hamlin to do so. She ran there for 109 laps until one of her tires let go, and the young driver smashed into the wall, ending her night and relegating her to a 32nd place finish she didn’t deserve. Her performance put the spotlight on her the next week as she acted as one of ESPN’s “In-Race Reporters” alongside Hall of Famer Tony Stewart. Although Johanna didn’t score a single top ten finish in her rookie season, she did notch her career best of 12th twice, at Daytona in July and Kentucky in July of that year.

2013 saw her production dip a slight bit, as she finished 23rd in points, but she matched her career best finish at Iowa that season. As 2014 loomed on the horizon, disaster struck. ML Motorsports folded abruptly before the season, which left her without any options for a new ride. She returned to Five Flags Speedway and promptly showed the talent she had there before the first attempts at NASCAR. In 2015 she signed a deal with Mike Affarano to drive for him that season. Again, funding wasn’t there and the team folded after Johanna failed to qualify in their only attempt. She would reappear again in 2015, this time at Iowa with one of the internet’s favorite small teams: Obaika Racing. She made the race that night, and finished 27th. To date, that was her final NASCAR start. 

Today, Johanna Long is now Johanna Robbins, as I mentioned at the beginning of this story. She married Kyle Busch Motorsports Engineer and late model driver Hunter Robbins in 2016. They have two children, Rory and Rhett. Interestingly, not only do they share a home and two kids, they also shared the front row at the 47th Snowball Derby in 2014. That same year she again spoke with ESPN, this time about losing her ride for ML Motorsports. “It’s been very depressing, I guess,” Long said in a phone interview. “I don’t know if that’s the right word, but it’s been very hard on me. I don’t think it gets any easier because it’s something I’ve worked for my whole entire life, just to be in NASCAR. I got to do it for four years, and it was the best four years of my life. Being in a car was what I looked forward to every week, and when it gets taken away from you, it’s not always the best thing.“

Johanna Robbins was and never will be a “bust” by any stretch of the imagination. She should’ve gotten a shot in top equipment with top funding. I could easily see her rubbing fenders with Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott and Kyle Busch every weekend today. She’s not even thirty yet. I still think she has a lot left in the tank and a lot of talent that a team could bank on, even though she seems to be content with the life she’s built after NASCAR, the competitive fire is most definitely still burning.

During the 2021 Snowflake 100 at Five Flags, Xfinity Series driver Noah Gragson caused a huge crash with 18 to go by going three wide into turn one. Johanna was collected in that crash and called Gragson out for being reckless and told reporters that Gragson should pay for her damaged race car. But what tells me that she could still go in there and give the Xfinity and Cup garage areas hell today was what she said about how she was running. “I was finally seeing the front. I haven’t seen the front in a very long time. I had a really good race car and we could’ve finished in the top three tonight.” 

That tells me all I need to know. Her resume speaks for itself. I just wish NASCAR owners saw it that way. Johanna Robbins should be a huge name winning races on Sunday and paying bills on Monday. She could’ve been and could still be one of the best that there ever was.

For now, she’s one of the best that never were.

Photo credit to @JohannaLRobbins the official Twitter account of Johanna Robbins

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