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Gaughan learning ropes in NASCAR

By Keith Lair
Staff Writer

Saturday, May 01, 2004 - FONTANA -- Brendan Gaughan can thank California Speedway and Gary Smith for getting him to NASCAR's Nextel Cup series.

It happened five years ago in a West series race at the two-mile Fontana oval, site of today's Automobile Club of Southern California 500. Gaughan will start a career-best fifth today. Fellow rookie Kasey Kahne is on the pole.

On that May Day race in 1999, Gaughan was running among the leaders when he and Smith crashed. The car erupted in a ball of flames. Gaughan broke two ribs when he hit the wall.

"That incident taught me this business,' Gaughan said. "It taught me you had to finish races. You don't need to stick your nose into someone else because bad things will happen. In order to win, you have to finish.

"Every time I got back in that car, I felt the pain in my ribs. Each time, it reminded me that you have to finish in order to win.'

And the victories did come. He won the 2000 West title and then won eight times en route to repeating in 2001. He won two Craftsman Truck series races in 2002 and was leading the series going into the season finale before finishing fourth last year. He won a series-high six times.

"I learned you had to do the right things,' he said. "I started doing the right things. I quit sticking my nose in and I became more patient. That's how I got here.'

Gaughan is certainly not the most heralded rookie of this 2004 Cup class. That honor probably would go to Kahne, who took the pole for today's race with a speed of 186.940 mph. Or Scott Riggs, who qualified fourth-fastest at 186.148 mph. Or even Brian Vickers, who will start beside Gaughan, a Las Vegas native who practically considers Southern California his home.

The 250-lap, sold-out race is scheduled to start at noon before a nationally televised audience.

Gaughan, 28, did not make the jump from the truck series to Cup until January, long after many had their teams and plans established. Doug Bawel of Jasper Engineering and Roger Penske teamed with Kodak as the sponsor.

"I don't know how they chose me,' Gaughan said.

He started the year a surprising 19th in the Daytona 500. He has finished as high as 13th, which he accomplished last Sunday at Talladega, Ala. Superspeedway.

"We're just taking baby steps,' Gaughan said. "We got together so late and we just need time to learn to communicate.'

Gaughan learned to race on the deserts of Southern California, racing for Riverside's Walker Evans. He was the first NASCAR Super Late Model winner at Irwindale Speedway and has won more West races at Irwindale (three) than any other driver.

He has worked with Shane Wilson as his crew chief throughout his career, and Wilson still sits atop the pit tool box, calling the strategy. But it's a lot different, now.

"I still use off-road terms from my days with Walker and Orleans (Racing),' he said. "Shane knows what I am talking about, but (engineer) Matt Lucas does not. Shane has to translate what I am saying to Matt. We have had to learn to communicate using different terms. It's made it a bit challenging. But we're starting to make it work a lot better.'

Lucas has had the car go through the wind tunnel 18 times so far this season. Gaughan remembers when the only wind tunnel he knew was driving through the Cajon Pass en route to Irwindale.

"People ask me, 'What is different?'' he said. "Well, I remember towing my box for a couple of hours to Mesa Marin. Now, I fly in a helicopter to get there.'

It means he spends more time in the South. But he figures that in the long run, it's worth it. He says he hopes to make the Chase for the Championship playoff. But he's in 27th place in the point standings. That's 270 points and 17 places behind 10th-place Bobby Labonte and 507 behind series points leader Dale Earnhardt Jr.

He'd also like to be the Raybestos Rookie of the Year. But he trails Kahne, who has finished second three times and third once already this season, by 240 points, and Vickers by five.

And of course, he'd like to win a race.

"Just racing with these guys week in and week out is a highlight of the season,' Gaughan said. "Just being here and competing at this level. With all of the effort we're doing, we think we can reach some of our goals. We're not content. We see improvement each race. We can win one.'

Gaughan has won one race (West in 2001) at California Speedway, finished second once (last year's NCTS race) and third twice (NCTS and West).

"I am beginning to sound like my dad,' he said of his finish-the-race mantra. "But if I do that, I can put myself in a position to win.'

He has been running at the finish in eight of the first nine races this year. In the past four, he has been on the lead lap in three, blowing and engine at Texas.

"We're working toward a win,' he said. "You keep knocking off those career bests and all you've got left is No. 1.'

-- Keith Lair can be reached at (626) 962-8811, Ext. 2272 or by e-mail at keith.lair@sgvn.com .

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