Brendan Gaughan turned in a 27th-place finish Sunday in what was billed as the final Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway. The Kodak Racing team’s day proved difficult, as once again, Gaughan said he was fighting handling conditions that relegated him to his finishing position, four-laps behind victor Jimmie Johnson.
Rainy conditions Friday afternoon forced NASCAR to set the starting line-up for the Mountain Dew Southern 500 by owners’ points, placing Gaughan 29th on the grid. With the field set, the Kodak Racing team worked on changes to the No. 77 Penske-Jasper-powered Dodge’s set-up. The plan was to address handling conditions Gaughan said he felt throughout the day on Friday. By the end of the final practice on Saturday, crew chief Shane Wilson felt the car was where it needed to be and Gaughan was confident in his machine.
“We made several changes, but Brendan seemed to be comfortable with what we found,” Wilson said. “After looking at the overall lap times from both [Saturday morning] practices, the No. 77 was averaged at 13th fastest.”
“The car felt really good,” Gaughan said Saturday after practice. “I was happy with the way it turned through the center of the turns and [Buddy] Baker said it looked good from his perch. A compliment from Baker at Darlington can go a long way.”
Shortly after taking the green flag Sunday afternoon, Gaughan told Wilson the car’s handling was exactly as it had been on Friday, loose in and off the turns as well as tight in the center of the turns. Wilson encouraged Gaughan to maintain his position until the first stop and changes would be made to improve the car's handling. Throughout the day, Wilson instructed the Kodak Racing pit crew to administer chassis adjustments while making changes to the air pressure in the tires, but nothing helped the situation.
Gaughan received several pieces of guidance from Baker over the course of the 367-lap event. Baker coached Gaughan to “take the position when you reach their door," in referring to the other competitors.
Gaughan was posted in the 26th position and in line for the “Lucky Dog” award when he radioed his crew that he had a front tire going down. Gaughan’s car then dropped off the pace and he lost the position to fellow rookie competitor, Brian Vickers. Gaughan radioed his crew one lap later that he felt as though he had made a mistake. Rather than a tire going down, the car felt more like the toe was knocked out.
Wilson asked Gaughan to “continue to dig until the caution flag [was displayed]." Gaughan did so and was rewarded just three laps later. Gaughan came in for four fresh tires and fuel along with a chassis adjustment. He returned to the track with the intent of heading back to pit road so the team could check the toe on the car but the opportunity was not present.
The green flag was displayed and Gaughan was posted in the 31st position. He continued to fight for what positions he could gain. As the event progressed, plans were made to address the toe situation Gaughan was experiencing on his Dodge. During a longer caution period, Gaughan came down pit road for four tires and fuel and returned to the track. He came back down pit road the next time by and Rodney Childers, the team’s car chief, led his crew over the wall to assess the situation. The diagnosis was negative; what Gaughan was feeling had nothing to do with the car’s toe-in.
Despite the adversity Gaughan managed to wrestle the car to the checkered flag with several “Darlington Stripes”. His Penske-Jasper-powered teammates, Rusty Wallace and Ryan Newman, finished the event in the 18th and 34th positions, respectively.