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Decent start not good enough

By Jerry Bonkowski
from ESPN.com

In sports, it's not always what you know, but whom you know. And rookie Nextel Cup driver Brendan Gaughan certainly knows more than his fair share of big names.

His father is a powerful Las Vegas casino owner. He played basketball for John Thompson at Georgetown University. He's close buddies with NBA star Allen Iverson, his former Hoya teammate.

And his racing ties bear some pretty big names, too. He and Jimmie Johnson practically grew up together on racetracks across the West Coast. His bosses are the renowned Roger Penske and innovative Doug Bawel. He's teammates with NASCAR legend Rusty Wallace and one of the brightest young guns in NASCAR, Ryan Newman. His driving coach is the legendary Buddy Baker.

Gaughan also has known more than his fair share of success in his racing career. The 28-year-old Las Vegas native is coming off a fourth-place finish last season in the Craftsman Truck Series, in which he led all drivers with six victories. He was the CTS Rookie of the Year in 2002. He also won the 2001 and 2000 NASCAR Grand National Division, Winston West series championships, combining for 14 wins in both seasons.

To say the least, Gaughan is no stranger to success and achievement. That's why he finds no solace in the way he's finished his first two Nextel Cup events. Most rookies would be happy with a 19th-place finish in the season-opening Daytona 500, and a 20th-place showing the following week at Rockingham, N.C.

But not Gaughan. He strives for success in everything he does. And he's certainly not happy being ranked 22nd in the standings after two races.

It doesn't help matters, either, that fellow rookies Scott Wimmer and Kasey Kahne are off to better starts than the ultra-competitive Gaughan. Wimmer is currently fourth in the standings, while Kahne is one spot higher than Gaughan at 21st.

When asked if he feels encouraged that rookies have grabbed podium finishes in each of the first two races, Gaughan, who is quickly becoming a fan favorite for his blunt honesty and sometimes controversial opinions, gets straight to the point.

"I wouldn't call it encouraging, I'd call it a bummer. I'm getting my butt kicked right now," he said. "A lot of the rookies have great race teams with them. I think we'll get up there. We went to Daytona, and the Penske team has never been stellar at Daytona. We're working on that. At Rockingham, I really wanted to do a little better. Rusty and Ryan were both up there and we had a little trouble."

But Gaughan is preparing for what could be the biggest race weekend of his career. After a test in Atlanta later this week, Gaughan returns home to Las Vegas for the March 7 UAW-DaimlerChrysler 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Having tested and competed on the 1.5-mile high-speed oval numerous times, Gaughan knows this track like no other. He's hoping that knowledge will help him and the No. 77 Dodge excel.

"Although I have not been in Las Vegas in a Nextel Cup car, when I drove the Winston West Series, it was in a Winston Cup car," Gaughan said. "I've got a lot of experience around there.

"We're going to try to get Kodak their first top 10 with the Penske/Jasper team."

While most Nextel Cup racetracks are ovals, Gaughan is trying to make his learning curve as straight and narrow as possible -- with a little help from some of his big-name friends, of course.

"The team has really been doing a lot to make the learning curve as flat as possible because I came here with a decent amount of experience," Gaughan said. "Put (former Rusty Wallace crew chief) Billy Wilburn next to Shane Wilson and that takes some of that curve out. Put Buddy Baker next to me and that takes a little more of that curve out. I have Rusty Wallace and Ryan Newman as teammates and that takes a little more of that curve out."

Gaughan's Cup career got off to somewhat of a late start this season. He signed Jan. 6 to drive the No. 77 car in a hybrid ownership venture between Penske and Bawel. While much of the team was already in place equipment-wise -- from the former tenure of driver Dave Blaney -- there was still a scramble to get things ready for Gaughan.

"This team has come together in a short period of time, and all the stuff is brand new. Dodge has given us more wind tunnel time," Gaughan said. "The Penske engineers and the Dodge engineers are two of the best groups in the country. It just takes awhile for us to assemble all the data and get running. It's going to start coming.

"We're going to hit Vegas and hit some of the other places I'm a little more comfortable with. Once we start running better and that enthusiasm becomes contagious through the team, we'll get there.

"I'm not worried about having to settle down. I don't worry, and I don't have a whole lot to do except on track. I've always believed that rookies in basketball and football can always contribute. When you've got teammates like Rusty Wallace and Ryan Newman, you've got two superstars sitting there. I'm going to try to learn from them right now and become a better leader."

And as for Penske and Bawel, they're maintaining pretty much of a hands-off policy on their young driver's development.

"They haven't sat there and said, 'All this pressure, blah, blah, blah,'" Gaughan said. "I think I do better with pressure. I kinda like the pressure when it comes to having to step up. But they're not standing over my shoulder saying, 'You have to win, you have to win, you have to win.'"

But when you're used to winning, certainly the lure of taking that first checkered flag in stock car racing's highest echelon is a powerful motivating tool for the Type-A personality that Gaughan possesses.

One of the biggest factors helping Gaughan's transition from trucks to stock cars is the advice from Baker. A 19-time Cup race winner, Baker, who carried two of the most colorful nicknames in the sport while driving -- "Leadfoot" and the "Gentle Giant" -- has proved to be a quiet, yet effective foil to temper Gaughan's occasionally boisterous outbursts.

"I'm having a great time with him helping," Gaughan said of Baker. "I played for John Thompson. I played for some pretty big people. You've got to be pretty blunt, and Buddy is definitely blunt. He tells you what he feels and what he sees. I like that. He garners that respect that he's earned over the years."

While the friendly Gaughan has quickly developed a reputation as being outspoken in Cup racing, it's likely more a combination of rookie inexperience coupled with wide-eyed enthusiasm. Millions dream of being in Gaughan's spot, but he's actually living it out.

"I don't think anybody has really tried to quiet it down," Gaughan said. "The only thing is if I can't perform, I'm going to quiet myself down. Finishing 20th each week is not indicative of walking around with as big of a mouth as I have. We need to start running better and let some of that enthusiasm be contagious for the Penske team."

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