Switching to Nextel Cup has not been easy, but rookie is committed to reaching victory lane
By MIKE FINNEY
Brendan Gaughan has always been tough. He proved that when his job was to guard 76ers' star Allen Iverson every day during basketball practice at Georgetown University in the 1990s.
He never grumbled about it. He just laced up his shoes and prayed that he wouldn't break his ankles trying to keep up with Iverson and his patented crossover dribble.
But while Gaughan does not mind things being tough, he does expect a big reward at the end for all of those difficult learning lessons. At Georgetown, the payoff was a little playing time. In Nextel Cup, he wants to reach victory lane.
The 29-year-old rookie from Las Vegas has posted just one top-10 finish at the halfway point this season, suffering through a litany of mechanical failures and accidents, and stands just 29th in the points standings.
While fellow rookies Kasey Kahne and Brian Vickers grab the spotlight, Gaughan grabs his driving coach - former NASCAR driver Buddy Baker - and tries to close the gap.
"I always laughed in the past when guys would say, 'Well, we were running 30th today, but we had a great race car,'" Gaughan said. "I've always thought that was amusing. I'm not going to sit here and tell you that we've been having a great year - we're not.
"We're having pretty much an awful year. We've had a few moments of brightness, but it has not been what any of us wanted nor expected."
So he has watched as his Penske Racing teammates Rusty Wallace and Ryan Newman have both been able to win this season.
It has been a small victory for Gaughan if he is able to pull into the garage area without the aid of a tow truck.
He said that is where Baker is starting to help.
"Baker has been a huge asset - forget the team standpoint first - just to me," said Gaughan. "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. 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."
Gaughan's best day at the race track this season came when he finished sixth at California on May 2. He also ran up front at Bristol this spring before getting caught in an accident.
"I try not to look at disappointments too much," he said. "You try to learn from the races. You try to take the notes you have and learn from them."
It is that never-give-in trait that Gaughan's car owner Roger Penske thinks will help him persevere in Nextel Cup racing.
"They say good people are the ones you want to associate with," Penske said. "People that work hard. Teams that succeed are the teams that work hard. Over the years I've picked up people that haven't gotten to the top and given them the chance to succeed.
"We've seen that in both our Indy car and our NASCAR team. We try to pick people that are committed, that are loyal and that have integrity ... It's a people business."
Gregarious Gaughan is committed to being one of those winning people - and soon.
He said his No. 77 Kodak Racing team has been behind on its equipment for much of the season, but is starting to catch up.
It is a lot different view from where he was last season, notching a circuit-best six victories in the Craftsman Truck Series and finishing fourth in the standings after being caught up in an accident with just 33 laps left in the season finale.
"In this business, playing catch-up is impossible," Gaughan said. "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."