Johanna Long was the “other” woman in the Nationwide Series last year. With Danica Patrick around, Long rode in the shadows.

But Long, 20, did not arrive in the middle of the night and suddenly pop into Nationwide racing. She has been racing stock cars since she was 13, scored a landmark victory in the popular and competitive Snowball Derby and has turned heads on the track despite running a limited schedule with limited resources.

She’ll be back with ML Motorsports this year with plans to run 21 Nationwide races – possibly more if more sponsorship materializes. She finished 20th in Nationwide points last year despite running only 21 of the 33 races, but she failed to finish five races and recorded no top 10s.

The goal this year is to improve considerably on those statistics.

“At the end of 2012, I felt really accomplished,” Long said. “My confidence is much higher than it’s been in a while. I can’t wait to get going again.

“It was all about getting experience last year. We had good runs going but never could really get them together. We ran in the top 10 but didn’t finish there.

“This year it’s all about putting the race together and being in the top 10 at the end and getting the finishes we deserve.

“It’s definitely a work in progress. It was a new team and new cars for me last year. And tracks I’d never been to. This year, I feel a lot more confident in myself and the team. We have a lot of stuff to work on, but if we can start where we ended up last year, we’ll be just fine.”

Long’s Nationwide journey began a year ago at Walt Disney World Speedway in Orlando, Fla. at a preseason test, where she met former series champion David Green, who would be her driving coach and spotter for the season – roles he’ll repeat this year.

Green said he was immediately impressed.

“By noontime that day, she was already equaling Danica’s speed on the track,” he said. “You could tell from the first lap that she was the real deal.

“There is no question that, number one, she has the ability, and, number two, the desire and the want-to. She’s been around racing a long time with her family, and she has all the ingredients before she ever gets to the track. Once there, she’s like a kid in a candy store.”

Although some fans have expressed an interest in how well Long might run in cars prepared for Patrick, Long doesn’t promote comparisons with Patrick, and generally rejects “female racer” talk. She prefers to think of herself as just another driver (although the long blonde hair tends to have an impact on such conversations).

“I feel like a lot of people know I’m there,” she said. “I’m giving 110 percent every time I go out there and show that I do belong, and hopefully I’ll keep on getting opportunities to stay in NASCAR.

“I feel like I’m definitely gaining their (other drivers’) respect. I race people the way I want to be raced. I race with respect and get respect back.”

Long lived close to Five Flags Speedway in Pensacola, Fla. growing up and benefitted from her family’s strong attachment to racing to move through the ranks.

“I want to make it to the Cup series, for sure,” she said. “I’ve been racing for a very long time. This is what I want to do with my life. Hopefully, someone will take a chance on me. Without the chance this team has given me, I wouldn’t be here today. I want to keep gaining experience and, hopefully, make it there one day.

“You have to learn to be patient. It’s hard, but it comes with the sport. You can be on the high of highs, but the next race you can be so low it’s not even funny.”

Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.com and has been covering motorsports for 31 years. He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.