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Former Georgetown walk-on gets ride of his life

By Mark Story

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Life is so surprising.

The guy in the black leather jacket riding the Harley ...

... sometimes turns out to be a Baptist minister.

The most honest guy in town ...

... sometimes turns out to be the richest trial attorney around.

And the guy making the following statements ...

* Allen Iverson "is one of the smartest kids I've ever met."

* John Thompson is a man "I have as much respect for, almost, as my own dad."

* "The Hoya Family is much tighter" than even Dean Smith's vaunted network of ex-Tar Heels.

... this time turns out to be a NASCAR driver.

In the mid-1990s, Brendan Gaughan was an undersized walk-on for John Thompson's Iverson-era Georgetown Hoyas.

Day after day, he busted his gut as practice fodder for Jahidi White, Othella Harrington et al.

"They were looking for somebody who would come on to the team, do what he was told and understand it was not all about him," Gaughan says.

On Sunday, the ex-hoops walk-on will start 17th as the highest-qualifying rookie in the Daytona 500. He will do so in a car partially owned by auto racing titan Roger Penske.

"I've had a very fortunate life," Gaughan says. "Christmas has lasted a long time for me."

The path taken into the Great American Race by this 28-year-old Las Vegas native surely is one of the more unusual in the event's 46-year history.

His father, Michael, is a Las Vegas casino magnate whose properties include The Orleans.

When Brendan was little, he used to tag along as his dad competed in off-road races in the desert.

Eventually, Brendan started doing the racing. Among his earliest opponents in those desert duels was current Nextel Cup star Jimmie Johnson.

"We're desert rats," Gaughan says.

At Georgetown, Gaughan kicked field goals for the football team, roomed with Hoya basketball standouts White and Jerome Williams and picked up a degree in business management.

But he never got the racing out of his system.

Post-college, he even sated that hunger working as an instructor for the Richard Petty Driving Experience at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

After moving up through some of NASCAR's lower series, his ticket into racing's big time was punched last season when Gaughan won a series-best six races in the Class AA truck series.

He was leading the truck points race until the final event of the season, when he was caught in a wreck -- not of his own making -- with only 29 laps left.

Instead of a champion, he finished fourth, 40 points behind Travis Kvapil.

Still, his season was impressive enough that Gaughan was able to land a coveted Cup ride when Jasper Motorsports (former driver: Dave Blaney) entered into a co-ownership deal with the venerable Penske.

Which brings him to his first Daytona.

Energetic and enthusiastic -- asked last week if he had butterflies approaching the 500, Gaughan told a reporter "If you love what you do, you have butterflies. You should have butterflies before you sit down to write your stories" -- Gaughan has been one of this week's freshest voices.

Yet his candor and exuberance landed him in a bit of hot water earlier this week when he told USA Today that he had placed a bet on himself in Vegas to win the Daytona 500.

Quicker than you could say "Pete Rose," NASCAR -- which does not have a written policy on gambling by drivers -- promised to have a talk with Gaughan.

NASCAR vice president Jim Hunter said yesterday that talk had taken place. And that he felt confident Gaughan would show greater "sensitivity" in the future to the issue of gambling on races in which he is competing.

Meanwhile, as he prepares for the biggest moment of his racing life, Gaughan says he always has the "Hoya family" to draw upon.

"As Hoyas, we all still talk," Gaughan says, noting that he most often catches up with NBA players White and Williams.

And Iverson?

"Well, he's the most difficult to get a hold of," Gaughan says. "But I'm honored to call him my friend."

NASCAR, your home to a case of "Hoya euphoria."

Who'd have thunk it.

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