Gaughan wasn't given enough time

by Marty Smith

For some NASCAR team owners, the concept of patiently nurturing a young, green stock car driver into a Cup Series mainstay is long Gaughan.

Constant pressure from Fortune 500 financial backers forces Nextel Cup team owners to produce immediately or face the daunting prospect of losing millions in sponsorship dollars.

That pressure transfers to crew chief and driver, who ultimately bear the brunt of the acclaim and/or criticism for how a respective team performs.

Aside from young NFL quarterback, there is no more emotionally exhausting spotlight in which to struggle than young NASCAR driver. Ask Eli Manning. Or Brendan Gaughan.

First, Manning.

The No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft has struggled terribly in his rookie season with the New York Giants, all the while facing unyielding scrutiny from the world's most unforgiving media corps with grace and dignity -- not to mention having to absorb constant comparisons with Pittsburgh's undefeated super rookie Ben Roethlisberger every friggin' day on SportsCenter.

That's tough on a young man. Gaughan can relate.

Throughout the second half of the 2004 season he was forced to address media speculation about his stability with Penske Racing South, and somehow did so without throttling anyone.

Meanwhile, every week on Totally NASCAR, he saw himself compared with Kasey Kahne, who joined Jimmie Johnson, Ryan Newman and Tony Stewart in the fraternity of rookies who made the Cup Series learning curve look like remedial math.

But there's a difference. The Giants will stick with Manning. They've invested entirely too much in him to simply throw it away.

He may be benched, but he needn't worry about losing his paycheck entirely as Gaughan has after just one season.

Gaughan is the latest example of an unforgiving trend: Inexperienced driver gets fantastic opportunity in NASCAR's greatest showcase, only to struggle and get a pink slip for Christmas.

Gaughan registered just one top five and four top 10s in a year that included eight DNFs, including six consecutive failures to finish between the season's 20th race at Pocono and its 25th at California. All said he finished 28th in the championship point standings.

Is that getting it done? Of course not. But it's not grounds for the unemployment line after just one shot, either.

He'd never even seen Pocono before, never raced Rockingham or Indy, either.

Gaughan is not overly crushed by the departure from Penske. Matter of fact he's quite content with the opportunities before him for 2005. But he still didn't deserve the treatment he received.

Look at Casey Mears. Mears never finished better than 15th in his 2003 rookie campaign with Chip Ganassi, and had 10 DNFs en route to a 35th place overall finish in the standings.

But fortunately for Mears, Ganassi and Target stuck with him, and he rewarded that in 2004 with the most improved season by any driver.

I understand why Gaughan was fired. This has always been a performance-based business.

But patience can still pay off. It will pay off for MBV with Scott Riggs and for Hendrick Motorsports with Brian Vickers. Gaughan never really had a shot.

And truth be told, if Jeff Gordon and Dale Jarrett were given Gaughan-like treatment they'd never have so much as achieved sophomore status in the Cup Series, much less gone on to win championships.

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