TAKING THE WHEEL: Gaughan back up front
By JEFF WOLF
Last year at California Speedway, Brendan Gaughan finished in 21st place, one lap behind the leaders, and he was still as happy as he could be.
Gaughan's disappointment over his own finish was overwhelmed by his happiness for then-Orleans Racing teammate and employee Steve Park, who won the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series race.
Park's win on Feb. 25 was his first since 2001, when he gave the team owned by the late Dale Earnhardt a victory in the first Nextel Cup race after Earnhardt's death at Daytona. But seven months later, Park sustained a head injury in a racing accident and some doubted he could win again.
Gaughan and his father, casino executive Michael Gaughan, gave Park a chance to prove his doubters wrong, hiring him in 2004 to fill the truck-team driver opening created when Gaughan moved up to Nextel Cup.
Gaughan's stay in the Cup series lasted one season, and he returned last year to drive Orleans Racing's secondary truck. But as the season went on, it became apparent the team would field only one truck in 2006 and the driver would be Gaughan. Park, whose only win for Orleans Racing was his California triumph, was released with three races remaining last year.
This year, with the 30-year-old Gaughan as the lone driver, Orleans Racing is striving to return to championship caliber. In 2003 he won a series-best six races and nearly won the series title, but a crash late in the season finale relegated him to fourth place in the series standings.
On Thursday, as Gaughan prepared to take some practice laps in the No. 77 Dodge, he said he was eager for tonight's race, and succinctly stated the team's goal: "We're going to race for the championship."
Heading into last year, Gaughan planned to run the team and be a part-time driver, but he wound up competing in 23 of 25 races and finishing 19th in the point standings.
Gaughan and Orleans Racing are already off to a better start than last year. He was headed to a top-10 finish last week at Daytona before getting caught up in a crash with three laps to go. He wound up 24th, bettering his 30th-place finish at Daytona last year.
Gaughan was encouraged by the opening-week effort.
"We got up as high as third or fourth a couple times," he said. "I just stayed with that whole (lead) pack until the wreck happened.
"The truck was fantastic, engine-wise. Every adjustment (crew chief Tony Liberati) made went in the right direction, and it was little bits (of changes) that made us better and better. Every time we came to pit road, we gained two or three spots."
Gaughan jokes that he'll have an edge tonight, considering his Las Vegas-based team had a much shorter drive to Fontana than many competitors, most of whom are based in North Carolina and had to detour from Daytona to their shops to get here.
And Gaughan will be racing on a 2-mile, D-shaped oval where his team knows how to win, as Park proved last year.
Gaughan, however, has never won at Fontana. He finished third in 2002, then second as the pole-sitter in 2003.
"We think (our truck is) going to be every bit as good as the one we had at Daytona and a little bit better. We're going to defend our race championship," Gaughan said.