- The Washington Times - Friday, March 26, 2004

Nextel Cup rookie Brendan Gaughan isn’t too concerned about his disappointing first five races of the season. After fast test runs at Bristol and Texas, he’s looking forward to the next two weeks — and 29 more after that.

“The tests are getting better,” he said. “We’re learning a lot more. We’re starting to see differences.”

It helps when you’re being coached by Rusty Wallace. The former Cup champion and longtime series star has been working with Gaughan and crew to tune up their performance for the next two Cup races: Bristol on Sunday and Texas the following week.

“He’s the man,” Gaughan said of his teammate. “I feel like we won the lottery now.”

Winning runs in the family. Gaughan’s father, Michael, enjoyed a successful 20-year career in desert off-road racing before turning his attention full time to his hotel-casino operations in the Las Vegas area that includes all the slot machines in Las Vegas’ McCarran International Airport.

Brendan Gaughan had a multifaceted athletic career before permanently turning his attention to racing. He played football for two seasons at Georgetown before giving it up to focus solely on basketball. A walk-on for John Thompson’s team from 1993 to 1997, Gaughan’s main job was to challenge star guard Allen Iverson in practice.

For now, the younger Gaughan is doing his work on the racetrack, with the new Roger Penske-Jasper Racing No.77 Ford.

The offer came after his consecutive fourth-place finishes in the Craftsman Truck Series in 2002-03. Gaughan was already in Iraq with Speedway Children’s Charity when Penske contacted the 28-year-old driver in January.

“I got a call that said, ‘When you come back, bring your suit and your helmet. You’re moving to North Carolina,’” he said.

Growing up in the southern Nevada desert, Gaughan had some of his earliest successes racing through the sand and scrub at the site of what is now Las Vegas Motor Speedway. It’s the same place where fellow Las Vegans Kurt and Kyle Busch did their early racing, although not with Gaughan.

“I went from the desert to college. In the Midwest, I raced the offroad stuff,” he said. “When I came home, I went to the Winston West series.”

While majoring in business administration at Georgetown, Gaughan dabbled in more than just racing — playing football and basketball with the likes of Iverson, Victor Page and Jahidi White.

Gaughan’s presence did cause some consternation for Thompson, who applied to the Nevada Gaming Control Board to buy a share of the Gaughan family’s slots business. However, Georgetown officials nixed the plan and Thompson eventually withdrew his request.

At first, Gaughan’s schedule worked out well. He would race from Memorial Day to Labor Day and play ball the rest of the year.

“The first football game was always the same [weekend] as the last race,” Gaughan recalled in a telephone interview from Texas this week, speaking with his usual zeal. “The football game was Saturday, the race was Sunday. I’d play the game, fly out with my dad, race the race.”

But he and the Hoyas’ coach eventually agreed it was too much, so Gaughan reluctantly left the team his junior year.

“I had to make a choice and racing was my choice,” he said.

That choice produced a Short Course Offroad Drivers Association Class 13 championship in 1995 and the 1996 Class 8 World Championship. When SODA became Championship Offroad Racing, he nabbed the 1997 and 1998 Pro-2 World Championship.

Winston West competition followed from 1998 to 2000 and he dabbled in the truck series in 2000 and 2001 before joining it full-time in 2002. A likely championship last year was thwarted by an accident as the trucks slowed for a caution.

So far this season, Gaughan is 26th in Cup standings and fifth among the six rookies, 36 points behind Kasey Kahne.

He isn’t daunted. After all, he notes, Kahne started the season with Bill Elliott’s car, his people — and Elliott himself. He thinks that with Wallace and Penske Racing South aiding in testing, the No.77 is getting up to speed.

“I was on the basketball team as a role player, as somebody who could fulfill the role and was athletic. I was fortunate enough at Georgetown that they needed somebody who could do that role and I was capable of doing it. I was not the superstar. I was told to make people better. If I can go and make Allen Iverson better, hey — I did what I could.”

He’s even positive about being cut by the Gladiators — a Las Vegas Arena Football team.

“Made it to the last cut. Hadn’t kicked a football in six years and still made it to the last cut,” he said.

Before the race here two weeks ago, he took time out to sign a 2-inch stack of fan souvenir cards, 8-by-10 reproductions with his picture and car on one side and statistics on the other.

Gaughan is one of only a few drivers who go out to the fence around the garage area to greet fans hoping to catch a glimpse of a driver and get an autograph.

“NASCAR fans are loyal. They’re here because of the guys,” Gaughan said. “I want as many to like me as possible.”

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