By MARK A. PEINADO/Staff Writer
FONTANA — One thing that you can never accuse Brendan Gaughan of is a lack of enthusiasm.
Whether it's talking about his old NASCAR Winston West days or surviving last week at Talladega, Ala., to post his best-ever NASCAR Nextel Cup Series finish (13th), Gaughan just smiles.
The Las Vegas native still can't believe how lucky a guy he is.
"Some days you just don't think people are very bright," Gaughan said. "I'm just a lucky guy. I don't know how they picked me, who picked me or whatever. I know I've been with Dodge my whole life. I'm still racing with Dodge and that means a lot to me. And to be driving for the guy the caliber of Roger Penske, that's amazing."
This from a guy who was tickled to death to get any media attention while making the rounds in his Orleans and NAPA Auto Parts Dodge when he honed his driving skills in the Winston West Series. Just the other day, Gaughan realized one of the major differences in running in NASCAR's touring series and in its marquee, multi-million dollar circus on wheels.
"I've been going to Mesa Marin (in Bakersfield) since 1997-1998, running Irwindale all these years, and yesterday NASCAR flew me in a helicopter to do autographs at Mesa Marin," Gaughan said. "I was like, 'this is nice.' I used to come up here with my late model and West team, stayed up all night to work on it and drive it. Now they fly me in a helicopter to say hi to everybody.
"I sign autographs in a trailer. Before, I use to stand there and hope that people would show up. Now, I still hope people show up and I get there and there's 250 people waiting. That's a neat feeling. It shows all that work in the West and Craftsman Truck series has paid off."
While Gaughan does feel privileged to be driving in the Nextel Cup Series, it's not like he doesn't have the credentials to race with the big boys.
The 28-year-old won the Winston West Series in 2000 and 2001. Gaughan was named the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series rookie of the year and was contending for the NCTS championship until the final race last year.
One of the things Gaughan loves the most is coming back to the West Coast, especially Southern California. California Speedway is where Gaughan first attempted to qualify for the then-Winston Cup Series. Two years ago, he qualified 37th and missed out on making the field by one position.
"I was telling someone this morning that I like the West Coast because you walk out into the garage and there's a Winston West official doing tech," Gaughan said. "I'm like, 'I know these guys.' I don't know the Cup guys yet. I love coming to the West Coast. This is my home and will always be my home. I grew up in Vegas, but Walker-Evans racing, where I raced my whole life, is just down off the 60 freeway. This is where a lot of stuff I've done is right around here."
Now Gaughan returns an NCS rookie. He's had the life of a first-year driver.
Some good, some bad.
Gaughan's 19th place finish at the Daytona 500 was his best run until two weeks ago at Martinsville, where he took 17th. Gaughan followed that up with a 13th place finish last week, and his upswing in momentum continued on Friday with his fifth-place qualifying run for today's Auto Club 500.
"We've done pretty well in the past, going all the way back to following Johnny Benson and Kenny Schrader back in 2000 when they really taught me a bunch about the business," Gaughan said. "This is a track where I probably decided to learn how to finish when I broke my ribs in that crash (in 1999). That was the start of good things. Some days it takes that really bad thing to teach you how to do something right. I learned in order to finish first, you first must finish."
Gaughan, after finishing fourth in last year's NCTS standings, got the call to drive in the No. 77 Kodak Easy Share Dodge. He's teammates with Rusty Wallace and Ryan Newman. The team last year was just Jasper Motorsports; this year, it merged with Penske Racing to become Penske-Jasper Racing.
Gaughan said it took a while for everyone to get on the same page.
"The Jasper team last year had four wind tunnel dates all year," Gaughan said. "By the time we went to Daytona, we had already been there six times. Right now, we're at 18. The Jasper Engines team couldn't compete on that level. Now, at Penske-Jasper, I have the benefit of a whole other group.
"We had Matt Lucas, our head engineer, he came from the Penske side, the car chief from the Jasper side and the crew chief from me. Everybody was put in one room and told to get along. It was one of those things where we had to round some of them corners to make it work."
Gaughan's goals aren't lavish. He said he knows he has to pay his dues.
But a trip to Victory Lane isn't out of the question, and neither is competing in the 10-race "Chase for the Championship."
It's just going to take some hard work and consistent good finishes to do it.
"This is a place that has been good to me," Gaughan said. "You can see back at the shop everybody is starting to feel that momentum. They're starting to get pumped up. They know it's coming. We practice sixth, that's our best practice yet. All you ask for is that chance at it. We think we have a chance. But all we want is a career-best finish.
"We keep moving our way up until the one spot left is No. 1."