Gaughan happily rejoins truck series after Cup foray
By JEFF WOLF
No one was walking around Daytona International Speedway a year ago with a bigger smile than Brendan Gaughan.
He was with a major team in the prestigious NASCAR Nextel Cup Series with sponsorship from one of America's best-known corporations and was preparing for his first Daytona 500.
The Las Vegas native had reached the pinnacle of American racing, and life, he thought at the time, couldn't get much better.
But then he was unable to have enough success in the car to satisfy some owners of his Penske-Jasper Racing team. He finished 28th in the Cup standings with only one top-five finish.
Gaughan's contract wasn't renewed at the end of the season.
The Bishop Gorman High School and Georgetown University graduate has returned to Daytona International Speedway this week and he's smiling just as often, though it's mostly seen only by those in the garage area set aside for drivers in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series.
His motorcoach isn't in the ritzy area set aside and guarded for Cup drivers this year. His team has to work out of his transporter instead of having a comfortable spot in a new enclosed garage built for NASCAR's elite.
But Gaughan likes racing best when he has control. He has that now since returning to the family-owned Orleans Racing team as a driver and general manager.
After he left the truck team to join Penske-Jasper, Orleans Racing hired Steve Park to drive his proven No. 62 Dodge, but the team never fully recovered from the late driver and team management changes. Park still mustered a ninth-place finish in the standings.
Since taking over the team, Gaughan, 29, has worked long days. The shop is expanding at the Speedway Industrial Park adjacent to Las Vegas Motor Speedway. It will double in size to nearly 30,000 square feet and include a complete fabrication shop and a fitness center for employees.
Gaughan's commitment seems to have paid off based on his team's performance in Thursday's qualifying for tonight's Florida Dodge Dealers 250 in the truck series at Daytona.
He will start 10th in the first of 18 races he plans to drive this year for Orleans Racing. Park, who will drive all 25 races as the team's primary driver, qualified 18th. Kerry Earnhardt won the pole at an average speed of 182.478 mph in 49.321 seconds, 0.439 seconds ahead of Gaughan.
"We're pretty happy," Gaughan said from Daytona after making the 36-truck field. "We're the top Dodge and Steve is the second-best Dodge. We've both got ourselves a heck of race car."
Gaughan is enamored with winning in the smaller pond instead of being an also-ran in the often shark-infested waters of the Cup series.
"Right now I'm not eager to go back (to Nextel Cup)," he said. "I'm happy trying to get this team back up and running.
"This situation is something I enjoy a lot more than being stuck in a situation where there are strict guidelines."
Such as at last year's Daytona 500 when a story misquoted Gaughan as saying he bet on himself in the Daytona 500. In truth, he often said he only bet on himself when driving for his family's team in the truck series.
While NASCAR never had a problem with his claims, his major sponsor last year, Kodak, wanted no links between its driver and gambling.
His father, Michael Gaughan is chief executive of Coast Resorts, which last year became a wholly owned subsidiary of Boyd Gaming. The family patriarch is legendary casino owner Jackie Gaughan.
"I am back to being the same guy I always had been," he said. "I can talk about the casino business ... I can talk about my family's business. I don't have to be panicked or scared of what I say.
"I am back to having fun."
He still has a Kodak logo on his driving helmet because "they are very dear in my heart. They were pretty darn good to me," he said.
It might be the only time in racing history when a driver basically was fired from a team and one of its co-owners (Doug Bawel of Jasper Engines and Transmissions) eagerly agrees to sponsor his next driving venture.
"It's going to feel like my first win when we take Mr. Bawel into the winner's circle this year and to bring all the Jasper people their first win (in NASCAR since 1988)," Gaughan said.
A truck series victory for Gaughan isn't a long shot. In 2003, he had six victories in the series and nearly won the championship, but dropped to fourth when he was caught up in a crash in the final race.
His priority this year, he said, is to help Park earn the series championship.
"If we have a weaker back-up (truck) somewhere, I'll get the lesser of the two because we want to make sure Steve goes for that championship," he said. "We're trying to put the Orleans team back on top."