(May 5, 2004) — First, it was Scott Wimmer who was in the driver’s seat of the Nextel Cup Series rookie of the year race.
Wimmer led the Daytona 500 with less than 30 laps remaining during a near-dream run to a third-place finish.
Then came Kasey Kahne, a 20-year-old who seems to be hot on the heels of his first series win.
Brendan Gaughan has taken a back seat to both drivers during the first third of the season, but now is making a charge of his own in recent weeks.
The driver of the Kodak-sponsored No. 77 Penske-Jasper Racing Dodge has had career-best finishes in the last three races.
”Martinsville, a career-best finish (17th),’’ the Las Vegas native said. “Talladega, never seen the place, a career-best finish (13th). California Speedway, a career-best finish into the top 10, almost a top five.
”Because of the resources, because of the good team-building people that we have, we don’t see that slowing down.’’
Sunday’s sixth-place result in Fontana, Calif., moved him into second in the rookie of the year standings, 37 points behind the red-hot Kahne.
Kodak racing fans are glad to see him there. The Fox Network’s television coverage of the race provided a rare sight. There was a NASCAR machine in Kodak colors, intact and in contention.
Morgan-McClure Motorsports, with Kodak as its primary sponsor, grew in stature in the world of elite stock car racing for most of their 17-year relationship.
A downward spiral in performance by Morgan-McClure in recent years, however, led to Kodak connecting with Penske Racing after the 2003 season.
”It’s been a long time,’’ Angela Nagel of Rochester said. “Mike Skinner did OK, but (Gaughan) is a young gun and he’s going to come along.
”He’s on his way, I have no doubt about it.’’
A few Kodak employees clapped their hands and let out an approving hoot Tuesday, as Gaughan took his place for an autograph session in the lobby of Kodak’s Theater on the Ridge.
Gaughan made the trip with team owner and auto racing giant Roger Penske, who also shared some of the wisdom with Kodak employees that helped build his $11 billion business empire.
”This (a sponsorship appearance) is one of the great tools that we have in motorsports,’’ Penske said. “It’s morale, it’s enthusiasm, it’s energy and those things all come out when you come to an event like this in Rochester.
”We can talk about our successes. We can also talk about some of our failures. The good teams are the ones that have a bad day and can bounce back.’’
Penske-Jasper is the result of the merging of two teams, including personnel with extensive backgrounds in racing. Still, it is a new team in Nextel Cup, and it showed early with a series rookie driver and crew chief, Shane Wilson.
Gaughan, despite some strong qualifying efforts, did not finish higher than 19th in the first seven races.
The low point was a 38th-place finish at Texas Motor Speedway.
”We started out with very few cars, all brand-new Dodges, very untested, melding a bunch of people into one group,’’ Gaughan said. “Anytime you do that, it takes a while for people to get used to each other.’’
Former series champion Rusty Wallace and Ryan Newman, an eight-time winner in 2003, have helped too. Both of those successful drivers, virtual teammates of Gaughan, have shared information they’ve compiled from testing sessions.
”We see it hopefully, maintaining that Ryan Newman-Rusty Wallace-level,’’ Gaughan said. “It’s exciting to see that.
”It means we should be up front each week making Kodak happy and Mr. Penske happy.’’