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BRENDAN GAUGHAN: Driver runs into bad luck



Las Vegas resident Brendan Gaughan has had an up-and-down year in his rookie season on the Nextel Cup circuit. Gaughan relaxes after finishing 19th at the season-opening Daytona 500. On Sunday at California Speedway, Gaughan was involved in a crash and finished 42nd, dropping to 31st in the standings. Photo by K.M. Cannon.


By JEFF WOLF
REVIEW-JOURNAL

FONTANA, Calif. -- Brendan Gaughan stood with hands on his hips, a scowl on his face and his normally gleaming eyes turned to a cold, angry stare.

On this hot Sunday afternoon at California Speedway, he didn't want to be watching as crew members of his No. 77 Penske/Jasper Racing team were attacking his Dodge with power saws to remove sheet metal from the front end. They were determining the severity of the damage after Gaughan had nowhere to go when a first-time Cup driver lost control of his car early in the race.

Just five months ago at this track, Gaughan had a different look after ending the race in sixth place, the best of his major league career.

The second time around, he didn't even finish. His 42nd-place result dropped him to 31st in the standings.

Six laps before he crashed into J.J. Yeley, the country's top open-wheel sprint-car driver, Gaughan was racing near the rear of the 43-car field. He followed four other cars, including veteran Tony Stewart, to pit road during the first caution, though the entrance had not been opened by officials. Each was sent to the rear for the infraction.

The mistakes, both his and Yeley's, thwarted Gaughan's hopes. He started 22nd and was racing through the field, advancing to 15th in just 16 laps.

It wasn't the West Coast homecoming the Las Vegas native had wanted.

"His overall finishes certainly are not indicative of the way he's performed on the racetrack," said NASCAR racing legend Buddy Baker, who has been Gaughan's driving coach this year.

"With a little bit of luck, I think Brendan will have a couple of top-five finishes before the year is over, and he has great potential."

Sunday's early exit was Gaughan's sixth straight -- two with mechanical problems and four because of accidents, most of which were not his creation.

With 11 Cup races remaining, Baker said he thinks Gaughan should be asked to return to driving the No. 77 Dodge next year.

Gaughan also is optimistic he will return with the team. He didn't ask for a long-term, guaranteed contract. He wanted to prove his worth.

"The last five weeks we've had motors and transmissions and things go wrong, but we've had some great runs," he said before the race. "We've been in the top 15 and top five, top 10 most of the time."

Baker said "he's had a good first year."

"I have a great deal of confidence that he's going to be a great driver," Baker said.

Gaughan has been successful in each of the past NASCAR series he has raced in. He led the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series last year with six wins. The year before, he won twice in the series and was its top rookie. In 2000 and 2001, he won the regional NASCAR Winston West stock-car series championship.

Gaughan acknowledged he's still learning.

"It's a tough sport," he said last week. "Personally, I'd give myself a (grade of) B or B-minus. I don't think I hurt us as much this year as we've had other problems.

"As a team, we're still way behind. We only have one new Penske chassis. That's all we've used all year. As far as newer cars, we've only had about six of them. It's been a long row to hoe. I still see a lot of good things."

The Penske-Jasper team is partially owned by the more successful Penske South Racing team, which fields cars for veteran Rusty Wallace and Ryan Newman. But Wallace and Newman have combined to win only two races this year, though Newman won a series-high eight races a year ago.

"I've never been a very patient man," Gaughan said. "I'm not patient, and that's what hurt us in a couple of races."

That's just one of the lessons in Baker's freshman curriculum.

"Brendan had a certain amount of success before he came into the Cup series," said Baker, who won 46 Cup races in 701 starts. "It's kind of like working with a golfer who's played four or five years and could par some holes, then somebody comes in and wants to tell him how to birdie those holes. That's our relationship. I have to prove some things to him every once in a while."




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