Gaughan is driven to keep learning Nextel ways

Moving up from trucks, he adjusts to tougher level, contends for rookie award

Auto Racing

May 14, 2004|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

Brendan Gaughan is 28, but he's still growing. As a Nextel Cup driver, that is.

Tonight, he'll attempt to qualify the Penske-Jasper Dodge for the Chevy American Revolution 400 at Richmond (Va.) International Raceway. The Las Vegas native comes into this race weekend on something of a hot streak. He has been the highest-finishing rookie in each of the past two races and is second in the Rookie of the Year competition.

His best finish, a sixth at California Speedway on May 2, has positioned him just 37 points behind rookie leader Kasey Kahne.

"So far, it has been a growing experience," Gaughan said. "We've come a long way in a short time. But we've still got a long way to go."

He said he hasn't been surprised by much since moving up from the truck series. The biggest difference, said Gaughan, is the number of teams that can compete at top speeds. A year ago, he could have a bad day and finish in the Top 10. This season, if he runs badly, he'll wind up closer to 20th.

"In the Nextel Cup Series, you have to root and gauge for every spot on the racetrack," Gaughan said earlier this week at Bay Hills Golf Club, at a fund-raising event for the Baltimore-based Youth Outreach Foundation. "And I'm out there doing that. My team takes good care of me. They give me a great car with good engines and I've got a great sponsor. If you have great people working with you, it stands to reason you're going to do well."

Richmond has never been one of Gaughan's favorite places. He's not a fan of short tracks in general, and until he finished seventh at Richmond in the truck race last year, he had never enjoyed racing there.

"But we had a great test last week on the new surface," he said, referring to the recently laid asphalt on the half-mile oval. "My coach, Buddy Baker, helped me get around the track. You've got to tiptoe in some places, but it's going to be a fast racetrack."

Gaughan described himself as "a cerebral driver."

"I'm racing in one position and thinking about how to get to the next position," he said. "And I'm thinking about the next pit stop. I'm thinking about top fives and top 10 finishes. I'm thinking the Jasper team has never finished better than 19th in the points race and I want to beat that."

If he does all those things, the Rookie of the Year award may well come to him. He wouldn't mind that, either.

"Not when you look at who the past winners were," he said, thinking of men like series champions Matt Kenseth, Tony Stewart, Alan Kulwicki, Rusty Wallace and Dale Earnhardt. "It's a big deal."

Gaughan said he was glad to support the Youth Outreach Foundation.

"Ever since I was in college at Georgetown, I've wanted to help the unfortunate, and especially kids," said Gaughan, who was a member of the Hoyas' basketball team with current Philadelphia 76ers star Allen Iverson. "When my sponsor, Jasper Engines, told me we were coming here to help this program, I called Father Kemp, a teacher I had at Georgetown, to tell him. He'd heard about this program. I'm glad to do whatever I can. Anything you can do to help kids is a good thing."

The Youth Outreach Foundation, started by its president, Hal Sparks, 11 years ago, helps at-risk boys and girls around the country.

This week's event raised $30,000 toward its $300,000 operating budget.

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