By MATT MARKEY
BLADE SPORTS WRITER
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Ask rookie driver Brendan Gaughan who is the toughest competitor he's ever faced, and the answer might surprise you. It's not Jeff Gordon or Dale Earnhardt Jr. - it's Allen Iverson.
Ask Gaughan what's the roughest spot he's ever been in, and his response will likely puzzle you. It is not running three-wide coming into Turn 1 at Daytona International Speedway - it's needing to kick a last-second, 35-yard field goal to give his team a victory.
Ask the 28-year-old who he was pulling for in the Super Bowl - the Patriots or Panthers - and he'll say neither. He wanted the house to win, since he's the heir to three Las Vegas casinos.
That's Brendan Gaughan, who was chosen by Penske-Jasper Racing to drive one of its cars this season on NASCAR's top circuit, the Nextel Cup. The stuff that comes out of Gaughan's mouth is surprising, refreshing, and sometimes a bit shocking. He is one of NASCAR's young guns, and he shoots from the hip - rapid fire.
But Gaughan is not your standard "good ole boy" - he couldn't be further from that.
Gaughan holds a business management degree from Georgetown University, where he played basketball with NBA All-Star Iverson, and also was an all-conference kicker on the Hoyas' football team.
He grew up in Las Vegas, where his family has operated casinos since 1948 when his grandfather moved there. Gaughan stirred things up on the Craftsman Truck Series the last two years, and was leading the points race last year until a late-race incident in the final event knocked him out of the title running.
His six wins in the Trucks Series in 2003, including one at Michigan International Speedway in July, caught racing guru Roger Penske's attention and Gaughan got an offer he couldn't refuse: to take his game to the highest level - the Nextel Cup Series.
"I'm a rookie out here and people keep asking me if there is a ton of pressure on me," Gaughan said as he prepared for today's Daytona 500. "There's no pressure now. Look at what I have around me - Roger Penske, Jasper Racing, and Kodak. They are all well-established as the best at what they do. There was pressure when I didn't have this kind of support, but not now."
Gaughan knows he has a top sponsor in Kodak, and is working for one of the most respected figures in all of auto racing, Roger Penske.
"You couldn't ask for a better arrangement, and as a rookie, I feel like the luckiest guy in the world," Gaughan said.
And he knows a little about the significance of good fortune.
Gaughan grew up in the casinos, swept the floors and cleared dishes off the tables, and then worked as a card dealer while getting his racing career started.
"In the Super Bowl, I wasn't cheering for New England or Carolina, I wanted the house to win. That's the family business, and I want to see it do well. Nothing wrong with that."
While he is focusing all of his competitive energies on making a good showing in the 500 since it is his baptismal run in Nextel Cup racing, Gaughan is already looking forward to the third race of the season when the circuit visits his hometown and Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
"That will be a thrill. I'm really psyched up about getting the chance to race in my hometown with the top drivers in the world," Gaughan said. "To a lot of other people, Las Vegas is bright lights and glitz and around-the-clock show biz and entertainment, but to me it's home, and it's as normal a place as anywhere else."
His father had a successful 20-year career in off-road racing in the desert while his casino business thrived, and got his son started in the sport. Brendan won the first off-road race he entered at age 15, and he continued to race in the summers while he was attending Georgetown, and won a number of off-road titles.
"My dad raced in the Baja, and I grew up a part of desert racing with him," Gaughan said. "I got going at it myself pretty young, racing what you'd call a desert rat. I raced a lot against Jimmie Johnson when I was 15 and 16 years old. There's a lot of different routes to get you to NASCAR, and I guess I took the one through the desert."
While at Georgetown, Gaughan was part of two Big East regular season championships in basketball, and played in the NCAA Tournament four times. He was also an all-conference kicker on the Hoyas' football team. Gaughan said there were times when he had to balance basketball practice, football practice, class and study time - all in the same day.
"It was difficult, but it also taught me to prioritize and to really bear down and focus on the task at hand," Gaughan said. "It's all about how you manage the demands on your time, and it's no different here in racing. You have to focus, soak up everything and learn all you can, and make maximum use of every moment."
Gaughan said he carries a lot of the lessons from basketball and football with him to the race track.
"I can't tell you how much I learned by spending two or three hours every day at practice with John Thompson yelling at me and coaching me on the basketball court."
"It doesn't matter what the sport is, the experience with a great teacher like that is priceless. I learned a lot about competitive fire and being tough in tough times from basketball and football."
Gaughan, who teams with Ryan Newman and Rusty Wallace in the Penske NASCAR venture, said he understands how difficult the racing format makes it on someone so driven to win. There will be one winner in today's race, and 42 guys who do not win, so Gaughan will allow himself the luxury of enjoying the experience for now.
"I think if I sat down and started to write a book about my life, a lot of people'' wouldn't believe it, Gaughan said. ‘‘They'd say there's no chance that one guy had all of those things. I'm extremely grateful for the opportunities I've had, and I've always tried to go make something out of those opportunities. And that's what I'm going to do here."