By Mark DeCotis
DAYTONA BEACH -- Better rookie drivers than Brendan Gaughan have come along in the past. But there were few who were as precocious as the former Georgetown University basketball player and truck series racer.
For confirmation, look no further than Gaughan's new Penske South Racing teammate, Rusty Wallace, who knows a thing or two about being outspoken.
"He absolutely runs 300 miles per hour," Wallace said. "Everybody thinks I'm wide open. This guy is a little stronger than I am. He's having a good time with life."
The teaming of the boisterous Gaughan with Wallace and the taciturn Ryan Newman should be one of more intriguing story lines of the upcoming NASCAR season. Newman has been the most successful driver in the Penske stable, winning nine races in two seasons along with 18 pole positions and the 2002 rookie of the year title. He's a man of few words who has meshed with his engineering-oriented team.
Wallace, one of NASCAR's all-time talkers, is in the midst of a 98-race winless streak, has a new crew chief, and is still insisting he knows best.
Gaughan hasn't yet gotten to that level, but he's not far off.
"My personality is my personality," he told reporters at NASCAR preseason testing at Daytona International Speedway. "I believe they hired me here because of the way I am, because of the things I tend to say, except what I said at Homestead (where he was fined by NASCAR for inappropriate language following the 2003 truck series finale.) Other than that, I think that's why they hired me, so I don't want to change."
Chances are, he won't. Chances are, Gaughan won't back down from challenges from his fellow rookies or the veterans who love nothing more than to put a fender to an upstart rookie when they believe he deserves it.
After all, Gaughan carried himself with the same swagger in the truck series last season and it served him well. He was in the top 10 in points all season, led for 11 weeks (eight of them consecutively), and if not for a wreck at Homestead, he might have won it all.
His bravado and driving talent didn't go unnoticed and he landed with Penske, which is following the blueprint that worked for developing Newman: employing the services of former racer Buddy Baker as a mentor and tutor.
"I'm not going to say no to him," Gaughan said of Baker. "The man has knowledge. He proved he can win, and he's proved he knows how to train somebody. So I say, 'Yes sir' and shut up for a change. You guys might not believe it, but I swear that's what I do. He's been on me pretty good."
Given the learning curve Gaughan faces, Baker will be closer to Gaughan than his firesuit. Gaughan will have to adjust from the big, wide, blocky trucks that blow a hole in the air to the low, sleek, aerodynamically sensitive Nextel Cup cars, which are fussy and twitchy in close quarters.
Gaughan also will have to adjust to the rigors of a 36-race schedule and the sometimes-suffocating demands of sponsors and fans.
But then again, he drove for his father, Las Vegas casino owner and former racer Michael Gaughan, and contends it prepared him for the big time.
"Dad is one of those guys, you love him in spite of yourself," Gaughan said. "When he's spending all the money and you're his son and he's your sponsor and he owns it, it's really pretty much a pain in the butt. Actually, he told Roger Penske if he was paying me over $5,000 a month, he was overpaying me."