The 43rd Annual Snowball Derby, the "Daytona 500 of short track racing," ran Sunday, and it was almost certainly the most exciting race of the year. 18-year-old Johanna Long, for whom this race is a "home game," won in overtime, easily pulling away from the field on the final restart when things fell her way after multiple wrecks in front, and leaving her with fresh tires, a good car and a clear track ahead. She did a masterful job avoiding getting caught up in the carnage that occurred right in front of her multiple times.
This should help her in her quest for sponsorship for her family-run Panhandle Motorsports #20 Camping World Truck series entry, or perhaps even bigger things sooner than she may have expected. She and her family would do well, of course, to proceed carefully, as some drivers move up too quickly, and are unable to adjust to the tougher competition. She has proven, though, that she has the raw talent, and is quickly gaining the experience, to succeed against a highly competitive field.
Despite a mere eight cars left on the lead lap at the end of the race, and only another eleven one or two laps down, the Snowball Derby showed short track racing at its best. It lasted over three hours, but was packed with non-stop action. Many times, cars that were a lap down were able to race back on to the lead lap, rather than rely on the "lucky dog" rule. There was lots of passing, and it was clear that all 37 drivers were there for one reason, and one reason only: to win.
While season championships are important to keep long-term fan interest piqued, what the Snowball Derby reminds us is how exciting racing is when there is no one on the track engaging in "points racing," and the only goal is winning. Yes, there were wrecks; yes, there were some bruised egos and tempers flaring...and yes, this is the kind of race that race fans love.
Some commentators and many fans have argued for years that there should be more short tracks on the NASCAR national series' schedules, and certainly the excitement of this race helps make the case that it would be a boon to the popularity of NASCAR racing. But I think this also shows that if winning is paramount, you get action on the track that is unrivaled by any championship run. If NASCAR changes the points system to make wins much more valuable than they currently are, we could see this kind of racing every week.
A couple of other notes on this race: Chase Elliott, the 15-year-old son of 1988 Cup champion Bill Elliott, ran a strong race, but most notably showed maturity far beyond his youth, in how he dealt with the disappointment of a destroyed race car after he was bumped in a turn by Landon Cassill late in the race. Landon Cassill, in turn, also showed a lot of maturity and class in not blaming Johanna Long for bumping him when racing for the lead with less than five laps to go. He still managed a fourth-place finish. David Stremme finished 13th, while David Ragan was involved in a wreck that ended his day prematurely, causing him to finish a disappointing 27th. Incidentally...Johanna Long is not the first woman to win the Derby; Tammy Jo Kirk won it in 1994. Neither is she the youngest: Steve Wallace won it at age 17 in 2004.