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Gaughan and his team are still playing catch-up

A late start coming to Nextel means now they have to turn up heat

JOLIET, Ill. - For Brendan Gaughan, the jump from the Craftsman Trucks to NASCAR Nextel Cup Series has been a big one. But with the season nearly halfway through, the 28-year-old rookie still has high hopes.

When the Penske-Jasper team signed Kodak at the end of last season, Gaughan was the top choice. After several standout years with Dodge in the truck series, the manufacturer could see Gaughan's potential and decided to move him to the next level. But it's been a chore trying keep pace with the top teams in the circuit when it comes to building competitive cars.

"Right after the season ended last year, I was talking about how we were working on a sponsor and we're really excited at the Orleans Team that some things were going to happen here and there," Gaughan said. "That was my focus. We were all set on running things from there. This deal came as late as everybody thought it did. It didn't happen until about the first of the year, and when it did, it happened rapid-fire.

"In this business, playing catch-up is impossible. You have to be a couple weeks ahead of the game. To be able to compete with the Ryan Newmans and the Jimmie Johnsons and the Jeff Gordons, you have to be on top of your game. To come in as late as this team did, I think we've done some pretty good things on pretty short notice. But we need to get a lot better, and we're going to."

Bringing his longtime crew chief, Shane Wilson, along with him to the Cup chase has certainly been a comfort. Having Penske veteran Billy Wilborn to consult has been a plus as well. But Gaughan's wild card has been having former NASCAR star Buddy Baker mentor him the same way he did with teammate Ryan Newman.

"Baker has been a huge asset -- forget the team standpoint first -- just to me," Gaughan said. "There have been times that, man, I couldn't figure out what a car was doing and Baker can come down and say, `Hey, the car isn't handling.' There have been times this year that I've been struggling with something, and he said, `Hey man, it's you. Fix it.' He's very blunt about it, and I was able to go and fix it.

"Fortunately for me, he's up there and can see when it's good and when its bad. He kind of understands and can watch what's happening. He's really been a godsend in that respect, of being able to help me get my confidence up a little bit when things aren't going well.

"Also, he's great from a team standpoint. He keeps all of the guys motivated. When he's up there barking and yelling orders, you know that we're doing really well. He knows he can help the team and knows that we're good. I love having him up there. It's great to let him be part of this."

Today the tour is at Chicagoland Speedway, a 1.5-mile track where Gaughan tested his truck in 2002 but has never raced there. Gaughan posted strong stats in the truck series on the intermediate tracks and has been excited this weekend about testing out his first of three new Penske chassis.

"We're trying to fire off some of the new equipment and see if that's really going to help us or if we need to go searching in another area," said Gaughan, currently 29th in points. "I liked the track -- a lot. It has a lot of qualities that reminded me of the track in Las Vegas, but to say I think I am going to go win it, well, I do, because I am Brendan Gaughan and I talk big.

"My team has to back me up now."

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