Brendan Gaughan is not your typical NASCAR rookie of the year candidate. The 28-year-old Las Vegas native has a degree in business management from Georgetown University, where he also garnered all- conference honors as a member of the Hoya's basketball team. Gaughan grew up the son of hotel and casino magnate Michael Gaughan, and first got his love of sports working the books at his family's Vegas casinos.
Gaughan managed to skip over the usual Truck-Busch-Cup progression, coming through the ranks in the Winston West series, where he won the title in 2000 and 2001. He then headed to the truck series for two years before being hand-plucked by legendary race team, Penske, to pilot the No. 77 Dodge for the inaugural 2004 Nextel cup.
M.com: The 77 Dodge was pretty impressive today, how do you feel about your chances for the Daytona 500?
Gaughan: We feel a lot better now. The Gatorade 125's are more than just practice; it's the time to really figure out things. It was a great time for me to earn some respect, being a Raybestos rookie you gotta go try and earn some. I think we earned a little bit, I think we proved that we had a fast car. We restarted that race in last, and worked our way all the way up to 8th place. I think everyone realizes that we have a strong race car, and we kept it all in one piece.
M.com: In your estimation, what would be a good finish in the 500 for the Kodak team?
Gaughan: We are with an organization now with Penske, Jasper and Kodak, those folks - all of them, nobody does this stuff for second. I am not sitting here saying 'hey I am going to win the Daytona 500' - I am going to say that we are all trying to win it. We would love to try and go out there and win it; will we be disappointed if we don't? No.
M.com: Basically a top twenty on Sunday would be great, and a top ten would be a bonus round?
Gaughan: A top twenty would be great; a top ten would be awesome. With five to go if we can be in that front pack you've got a chance to go for a win, would we love to be able to go for a win? Kodak has been in victory lane three times for the Daytona 500, Penske never has, Jasper never has - we'd like to bring Kodak back and we'd like to get Mr. Penske and Mr. Bawel (team owners) their first ever. We're working hard for it.
M.com: Has your strategy for the season changed at all with the announcement of the point system revamp?
You get momentum; momentum is huge in all sports. Say, you hit the summer stretch and start picking up a few good races and you are bordering at 350 points, we're scratching and clawing for every spot. And then August rolls around, and we hit that ten race thing and we start hitting that momentum and hitting our stride; now hey we've got momentum. It works for a rookie; we are no longer a rookie at the end of the year as much as we are at the beginning. So, I think it works great for a rookie driver who is running for Raybestos rookie points.
M.com: Who do you think is your most formidable competitor for the ROTY honors?
Gaughan: I can't pick out one of the Raybestos rookies. Look at the guys we have, take away the drivers and look at the organizations. This business is about the teams and sponsors. I've got Penske/Jasper and Kodak. Holy Schnikies. Look at Brian Vickers, he's got Hendrick and Delphi, Sauter is with RCR and AOL. I mean look at the rookies that have sponsors and teams in the Raybestos rookie class.
M.com: How is your relationship with teammates Ryan Newman and Rusty Wallace?
Gaughan: It's been great so far. I haven't been able to do much with Ryan yet. What's cool about the one team thing with all the Penske help, and now with all the Dodge help it enables us to like send Ryan to go test California while I tested Vegas. You don't have to go to as many places; we can send people other ways to get the knowledge.
Rusty has been testing with me more, to help me out. Rusty even let me jump in the Miller Lite Dodge at Rockingham. You know, that's great. The Kodak team was having a little bit of an issue and we were struggling and Rusty didn't want me to get down or the guys to get down, and he was like 'jump in this'. That was exactly what I needed to do, it gave the guys confidence to know that I could drive at the same speed Rusty was.
M.com: Have you and Rusty and Ryan talked at all about any kind of formula you are going to use to hook together and draft on Sunday?
Gaughan: No, we were just trying to get through the Gatorade 125's. The 77 team just wanted to get into the Daytona 500 and make Kodak happy.
We're very fortunate. We're inside the 9th row, Rusty is outside the 9th row and Ryan is outside the 10th row. So, hey if the Penske Dodge's hook up, we are very strong. The Penske Dodge's hook up together and we feel that we are very formidable. We feel that we have a great piece for the race, let me hook up with my teammates and push Rusty Wallace to a Daytona 500 win, I'd be just as happy.
Gaughan: There is no reason to be freaked out; if you are freaked out you are not prepared.
M.com: Did playing college basketball help mentally prepare you for NASCAR?
Gaughan: I definitely think it has. Playing collegiate athletics has had a very big impact on all my life.there's a whole lot you learn from an athletic mentality.
M.com: What was it like growing up in Las Vegas?
Gaughan: Las Vegas has always been my home. My grandfather moved there in 1948, and my father has operated casinos for years and I am very proud of my father and my family. They have worked hard, it wasn't an easy road. And growing up there was special. To me its home, it's just like any normal town to me.
M.com: Is Vegas one of the most important events of the year for you?
Gaughan: It is home. There are so many friends and family and you want to take care of all of them. I'm the guy that wants to take care of everybody.
It's going to be a tough weekend, but I love racing in front of the home crowd. The Craftsman Truck series last year in Las Vegas -the most they had ever had was like 15,000 - they had 70,000 people show up for the Craftsman Truck event. The Orleans Racing team would like to say we had something to do with that.
It definitely made us feel good to see all the people out there supporting us. This year with us being in the Nextel Cup, it's going to be special.