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By Brian Hilderbrand

"Fun" is just about the last word Brendan Gaughan uses to describe his lone season in the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series.

After driving the now-defunct No. 77 Kodak Dodge for Penske Racing to a 28th-place finish in points in NASCAR's top series in 2004, Gaughan returned to the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series last year. He is piloting a Dodge truck for his family's Las Vegas-based Orleans Racing team - and once again is having fun at the track.

Although the team has struggled the past three seasons to recapture the success it had in 2003 when Gaughan drove the truck to six victories and a fourth-place finish in the championship, Gaughan said he is enjoying the rebuilding process.

"Driving for the team that is my family always has been my favorite thing," he said. "Not running well sucks worse than when you drive for somebody else but it still is a better feeling than driving for somebody and feeling helpless. It's up to us to be better. That's the good and the bad of it; there's nobody else to blame but us."

1. Looking up

After a pair of top-four finishes in his past three races, Gaughan said he believes his team is close to regaining the form it displayed in 2003.

"We're putting a lot of hard work into things," he said. "We're picking up pieces. We still need a few more pieces here and there to be more of a complete team, but we are a better team now than we were back then."

2. Big difference

The presence of a new manufacturer (Toyota), a new tire, changes in truck bodies and new team personnel have made comparisons to Orleans Racing's effort in 2003 moot, Gaughan said.

"It's a whole different deal," he said. "That's why I've said since the start of this year (that) I don't care about 2003 anymore; I'm looking to make 2006 and 2007 better. And, yes, we're on the right track."

3. Could be worse

Had it not been for two bad races to start the season, Gaughan could easily be among the top 10 in points.

"We went to Daytona and we got wrecked with four to go - and we were in fifth place at the time. At California, we blew a motor (17) laps into the race. If we finish 20th in both of those races instead of dead last, it puts us in eighth or something in points.

"We're not as bad off as we think, it's just when you finish 15th every week for a bunch of weeks in a row we expect better than that, we're a better team than that, and we're going to get better than that again."

4. The right stuff

Although the season has been a struggle for the Orleans Racing team, Gaughan said this year's crew, led by crew chief Tony Liberati, has better chemistry than any other he has been around.

"Chemistry is easy to find when you're winning races," he said. "This team right now, I'd say, probably has better chemistry than that (2003) team because we've banded together fairly well even though we're not running as well. That, to me, is chemistry."

5. Empty Cup

Gaughan insists he isn't looking to return to the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series in the near future.

"I can't even think about going to Cup until we start winning truck races," he said. "I'm not going to leave this team. This is where my heart is, this is where my soul is, this is where my family is and we're here to make this work. But before we can think about anything else, we've got to go compete for championships and win races, and then we'll talk about the next thing."

Brian Hilderbrand can be reached at 259-4089 or at bh@lasvegassun.com.

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