By JEFF WOLF
Brendan Gaughan was asked a question over his two-way radio late in Sunday's NASCAR Nextel Cup Series race in Talladega, Ala.
It was a question the Las Vegan believed had an obvious answer.
Gaughan topped off the fuel in his No. 77 Dodge with 42 laps left in the race -- and just two laps after his previous pit stop -- but it was doubtful he could complete the 188 laps without more gas.
He was sitting in first place on lap 181, one lap after most teams pitted after a caution flag was waved the lap before.
"We didn't think we could make it on fuel," Gaughan said Monday. "Our team owner, Doug Bobble, came on the radio and said, `Well, kid, do you want to gamble?'
"I said, `I'm from Vegas. Let's go for it.' "
The gamble paid off with assistance from the yellow flag from laps 180 to 183, and though Gaughan lost a few spots to faster cars, the rookie driver posted a fourth-place finish, his best of the season and only his second finish in the top 10 in the series.
"The first thing we said was we're doing this as a team," Gaughan said, giving credit to crew chief and former Las Vegas resident Shane Wilson for having him pit on lap 144 to top off his tank just two laps after a full pit stop.
"This feels very good," Gaughan said of his first top-five effort in a race won by Dale Earnhardt Jr. "With all the headaches we've had to go through recently, it hasn't been fun, but we've stuck together."
The biggest headache has been dealing with persistent rumors that Gaughan would not be asked to return to the Penske-Jasper Racing team after this season.
The team has a two-year renewal option, but Penske Racing South president Don Miller has said a decision won't be made before the end of this month at the earliest on whether Gaughan, 29, would return to the team.
"There is no timetable," Gaughan said. "I'm in this car until the end of the year. I'm not worried if I'm in it next year or not.
"At the end of the year, if they choose not to (keep me), I won't be upset. This team still has potential and it would be an honor to keep driving for them and (sponsor) Kodak."
He still has had to contend with the rumor mill, called the "silly season" in NASCAR's world.
He vehemently denied that it has been determined that he's out of the Cup car next year and would return to the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series for his family-owned and Las Vegas-based Orleans Racing team.
In fact, Michael Gaughan, Brendan's father and team owner, said Steve Park has just signed a contract to drive the Orleans truck in 2005.
And, Brendan Gaughan said, there's no plan by Orleans Racing to start a Cup team.
"That wouldn't happen for 10 years," he said. "We've never had a goal to have a Cup team. Orleans Racing was born and bred for the Craftsman Truck series."
Some of the actions by Penske South Racing, a partner with Jasper Engines in the ownership of the No. 77 team, could impact Gaughan's success this weekend when the Cup series competes at Kansas Speedway in Kansas City, Kan.
Travis Kvapil, the reigning truck series champion, was rumored to have been a candidate to replace Gaughan. Although Kvapil denied that rumor Sept. 20, he tested the No. 77 team's new Dodge at Kansas Speedway a week later and totaled it after losing control exiting the third turn, a Penske team official said.
Gaughan did not want to comment on the loss of what was to have been one of his few opportunities this year to drive a new car built by Penske Racing South, which provides race cars for Ryan Newman and Rusty Wallace. Gaughan's first 2004 car wasn't provided until the Brickyard 400 in August at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Gaughan's Talladega effort moved him from 32nd to 30th in the season standings, which is much lower than he thought he would be 29 races ago when the season started.
"Nobody likes to be 30th in points, most of all I don't," he said. "But I'm not worried about it. I'm worried about getting wins. We're racing for wins, not a championship."