By JEFF WOLF
A year ago, Brendan Gaughan was at the peak of his racing career. But with three races left in his rookie season in the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series, there's no indication that Gaughan will return as a driver for Penske-Jasper Racing
Gaughan, a Las Vegas native, was not one of the 38 quickest cars in Friday's qualifying session at Phoenix International Raceway. But he received a provisional spot based on car-owner points and will start 40th in the 43-car field Sunday.
Although he is second in the rookie standings, with two top-10 finishes, Gaughan is 29th overall.
He isn't happy about speculation he won't return to the No. 77 Dodge next year.
"To be this far back in the points and to be the subject of rumors isn't the goal any team has," Gaughan said. "As the driver, I could have done things better here and there, but I don't think I was every mistake and every problem."
It's a far cry from last year.
Gaughan posted a record six NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series victories in 2003 for father Michael's Orleans Racing team. Gaughan took the points lead into the season finale before a wreck relegated him to fourth place in the standings.
His performance last year earned Gaughan a ride in the Cup series and a sponsorship from Kodak.
But it's looking more and more as if Gaughan won't be back with the team owned by Roger Penske, Jasper Engines owner Doug Bawel and four others, including John Erickson. Erickson declined to comment on the matter and deferred to Penske, who isn't expected to arrive at the track until Sunday.
"(Bawel is) a really nice man," Gaughan said. "I've really enjoyed the Jasper relationship this year and I hope it goes on forever. Mr. Penske has been great. I have nothing bad to say about Roger Penske."
One rumor has Gaughan -- if his Penske-Jasper contract isn't extended -- as a possible replacement for Ward Burton in Haas CNC Racing's No. 0 Chevrolet.
"I don't care about the rumors," Gaughan said. "I don't care about what people are saying. I won't let it affect me or this team. I'll go out and drive the wheels off whatever I've got."
Gaughan doesn't know what his future in the Cup series will hold.
"I have no clue," he said. "I hope I know before the last race. I've heard some teams are interested. I'm driving the Kodak Dodge now, and that's all I'm focusing on. If there are other teams that would like me, it's awesome. I'll have more options."
He said he will continue to negotiate his own contracts, as he did with his current team.
"This situation is why I handle my own negotiations," he said. "I don't ever want to be stuck somewhere where I don't want to be, and I don't want to be stuck somewhere where they don't want me."
Gaughan agreed not to drive any race car other than his Cup car this year but said that will change in future contracts.
"I'm trying to get a deal so I can drive a bunch of truck races next year with our Orleans Racing team," he said. "Anytime you get on a track, it's a positive for the driver. I'd also like to drive some Busch races."