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Penske Racing South hopes to develop Brendan Gaughan into a success

By BRANT JAMES, Times Staff Writer

The omnipresent eye of Roger Penske is all-seeing.

Just ask Brendan Gaughan. You aren't safe anywhere. Not even hanging off a cliff, 75 feet down an embankment in some acrid corner of the Baja Peninsula.

As Gaughan stared over the dashboard of his truck, waiting for his crew to find him during the Baja 1,000-mile race in late November, he had plenty of time to ponder his negotiations with Penske Racing South, negotiations that would forbid the chicanery that put him in this spot.

Maybe Penske wouldn't find out. Gaughan should have known better. He found out a few weeks later.

"So the phone rings, and it's Roger Penske," Gaughan said. "After a second or so he says, and I knew he knew, "So, how was the desert?' Uhhhh."

Lucky for Gaughan (pronounced gone) he can gab himself out of almost any situation.

And he backs it up. A fast talker and faster driver in the NASCAR Truck series - he led it with six wins and was first in the standings for eight weeks last season - the 28-year-old son of a Las Vegas casino owner signed on as Penske's third Cup driver in January and has shown promise in his first two Nextel Cup races with top-20 finishes. His performances have not been as splashy as fellow rookies Scott Wimmer - who was third at Daytona - or Kasey Kahne - who was second at Rockingham - but are not bad for someone who has not raced stock cars in four years.

"I hope (Penske) found the right guy," Gaughan said. "If not, they'll go get somebody else."

Gaughan feels fortunate to be part of a powerful team, and Penske has put him in the same development program that took teammate Ryan Newman from USAC tracks to nine-time winner and championship contender in four seasons. As with Newman, 63-year-old former racer Buddy Baker provides hands-on tutelage. While Newman was an eager and likable student, Gaughan is more of a kindred spirit to Baker.

"He's a live wire; I'm telling you," Baker said. "I like to be able to look a guy in the face and see a guy with the desire to be the best. You can pull back on drivers, but the problem is you can't push them. They have to make that part for themselves, and he does.

"The thing is, he made a choice to be here. Look where he comes from. He doesn't have to race, but he wants it."

Penske Racing South president Don Miller realizes he is subjecting Gaughan to a quicker apprenticeship than Newman, who made his stock car debut in 2000 and ran his first Cup season in 2002. But you can't argue with the results. Newman won rookie of the year.

"We did it purposefully with Ryan," Miller said. "Every step of the way we did the few races the first year to see what he was all about, then came back and did the ABC (ARCA, Busch series, Winston Cup) program and then Winston Cup and everyone said, "You can't do that, you can't run this guy, you need to get him a couple of seasons in (Busch) and get him accustomed to the racing.'

"Ryan Newman and Brendan Gaughan have one thing in common: They both know how to win races because they've won them, and that's something young drivers have a terrible time learning because they're not exposed until the last 10 laps and the guy is there breathing down your neck and 10 other people are trying to take your spot."

In some ways, Gaughan is not the typical Penske project. Newman holds a degree in vehicle structure engineering, and teammate Rusty Wallace is highly involved in his team operation. Gaughan, however, said all he knows or cares about is driving.

"I know how to turn laps and I know how my butt feels," he said, referring to his sense for how the car is running. "That's all I know. I want to go fast and have them tell me what I'm doing and try to fix it."

Gaughan also knows the intangibles: pitch the sponsor, respect your peers, pitch the sponsor some more. Though his overt, manic personality could bother veteran drivers, he is genuine. Those with the attention span to listen to all those quotes realize there is not as much ego entwined in all those words as expected. He even refers to Penske's senior driver as "Mr. Wallace, sir."

It's all a part of staying on the Penske path, the path that is a pretty good route to success in motorsports. And that path no longer leads through the desert.

FIVE THINGS YOU DIDN'T KNOW ABOUT BRENDAN GAUGHAN 1. He was captivated by the Harry Potter book series after seeing one of the movies with his niece, Emily, and now rereads the books and contributes content to a fan Web site. His studies conclude that in the 13th chapter of every book, the reader learns something.

2. His father, Michael, owns Orleans Casino in Las Vegas.

3. Soon before signing his contract with Penske Racing South, he drove his truck off a cliff - it stuck about 75 feet down - during the Baja 1000 desert race.

4. He had to guard Allen Iverson in practice when he was a guard at Georgetown.

5. He wants to market a pseudo bobblehead of himself called "Bobblejaw."

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