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Driver, crew chief uprighting their ship

By JIM SHORT / The Press-Enterprise

His team has been a part of the NASCAR Craftsman Truck series since the first race, in 1995, and went into the final race of the 2003 season with a championship within its grasp. But after two years of mediocre results, Brendan Gaughan said it's time to let the past be just that.

Re-evaulation of the Orleans Dodge team in the offseason involved fundamental mechanics, body work and chassis set-ups.

"One of the problems with the team was that the few guys that are left from '03 always wanted to use the excuse 'That's how we did it in '03,'" Gaughan said. "I finally had to have a meeting with the guys and say, 'I (don't) give a darn about what we did in '03. One, it was '03. Two, we lost.'

"I want it to be like '06. I want it to be better than we've ever been."

Indeed, enough has happened in the past two years to make the 2003 season irrelevant. Gaughan had six wins in the Orleans Dodge and went into that season's finale leading the standings by 26 points over Ted Musgrave. But he was sidelined in an accident midway through the race at Homestead, Fla., and wound up fourth, 40 points behind champion Travis Kvapil.

The next year, Gaughan left to drive for Roger Penske in the Nextel Cup series. Crew chief Shane Wilson also left, unexpectedly, and Gaughan said Wilson's departure "sent us for a loop." That blow was accompanied by an ill-fated management reorganization that left the Las Vegas-based team in turmoil. Steve Park's win in last year's American Racing Wheels 200 at California Speedway in Fontana stands alone as a highlight of those two seasons.

"We went through eight general managers in 18 months. You can't function as a business trying to do that. So now we've gone back to try to find that stability," said Gaughan, who returned to the truck team after a single season with Penske and began trying to re-establish order while racing part-time as Park's teammate.

"Brendan was gone and some different people came in, and things got a little bit out of hand," shop foreman Tom Buzze said by telephone. "Once it starts spiraling out of control, it's hard to bring it back."

Buzze, a NASCAR veteran who signed on full-time about a month ago, is one of the men Gaughan is counting on to do that. Another is crew chief Tony Liberati, who took over last May and said he found a team "hurting for people and hurting for help" because of the decision to create a second team.

This year, due in part to sponsorship changes, Park has gone back to the Busch Series, and Orleans Racing is fielding just the one team for Gaughan. Charlie Wilson, who was Park's crew chief, now is the general manager, and the shop staff has been trimmed to 28 people, among them long-time engine builder Kevin Kroyer.

Gaughan said getting Liberati was a case of "just blind, dumb luck," and in part Liberati's long friendship with Buzze is responsible for the presence of the man Gaughan regards as the team's secret weapon.

"He's found more things that we were making mistakes on, and fixed them, than you could even fathom. We've already made huge gains," Gaughan said, and Buzze said finding them wasn't hard.

"There was a lot of improper work," Buzze said. "There were no (written) policies or procedures in place and people were just doing things the way they saw fit. It was across the board. Fundamental mechanics were not being done right, some of the (truck) body stuff had issues we're correcting, and the final part is the proper way to go to the racetrack, chassis-wise. There's not one piece of the race trucks we're not evaluating."

Gaughan said "Rambo (Liberati) has really worked out great" as well.

"We're both type-A personalities," said Gaughan. "But it seems like when Rambo wants to yell and scream, I'll stay calm, and when I'm yelling and screaming, he's calm. My strengths are his weaknesses, so we complement each other."

Liberati, a former Marine who has worked for Roush Racing, Hendrick Motorsports and others, isn't a completely happy man at the moment, though, because of a 24th-place finish in Friday's race at Daytona Beach, Fla.

"We run good," Liberati said by telephone. "We were up there battling and they knew we were there, but the bottom line is we finished 24th. We need to run good at Fontana. The trucks are still not where they need to be aerodynamically. The chassis are pretty well squared away, but we've got to work on the bodies."

Gaughan is confident all the work will be completed.

"My realistic expectation is that we can go out there and compete for the championship," he said. "I think we can go out there and win races right now. We are a very, very solid race team at this moment."

Reach Jim Short at (951) 368-9528 or jshort@PE.com
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