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Vegas Rules: How Brendan Gaughan keeps racing from defining himself

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FORT WORTH — Brendan Gaughan has two names.

The one race fans know was given to him on July 10, 1975, by Michael and Paula Gaughan.

It’s the name that’s been displayed on the side of every race car he’s driven since he began off-road racing at 15. It’s now on his No. 62 Chevrolet in the Xfinity Series that he will drive for Richard Childress Racing this weekend at Richmond International Raceway.

That name is the one an older fan wants him to sign on a “hero card,” a request that briefly interrupts an interview earlier this month with NBC Sports in the garage area of Texas Motor Speedway.

Despite being raised in Las Vegas and having his diaper changed by at least three dozen of the employees at his father’s casino, South Point, not everyone in “Sin City” knows his face or his occupation.

But Vegas is Vegas. Sometimes you have to take on another name when the situation arises.

“I most of the time lie to people about what I do for a while,” Gaughan says. “Especially in Las Vegas. I’m not going to tell you my fake name. But I had a fake name. It was one of my best friend’s growing up. It was my fake ID for a number of years.”

Whatever the name, that’s how he introduced himself to his future wife, Tatum, in 2005. Though both are Las Vegas natives, their paths crossed in a tourist bar one night.

“I was in town with some friends of mine from the military that wanted to go out and party and she was with her brother’s ex-girlfriend that was just turning 21,” Gaughan recalls.

He was accompanied by his Camping World Truck Series crew chief in addition to his military buddies. But for a little while, they were none of the above. Because in Las Vegas, “you have to make up a good story,” says the driver.

“We told her we were hot air balloon racers,” Gaughan says. “When they chuckled and said ‘OK, what do you really do?’ We said there’s a NASCAR crew chief, a NASCAR driver and two special forces military, she looked right at us and said ‘OK, where’s the hot air balloon race?'”

“That was more believable than the truth.”

FAMILY PERKS

Brendan Gaughan’s truth comes from having three families. The one he’s related to, the one he played basketball with and the one he races with.

The journey to becoming comfortable with himself began with his father.

While Michael Gaughan’s hobby was off-road racing, he allowed his children to figure out who they were and what they were good at with his endorsement. Brendan Gaughan took advantage of the perk.

The piano?

“Sucked.”

Guitar?

“Sucked.”

Karate?

“I’m a second-degree black belt in karate,” Gaughan says. “I loved karate. I was good at it, so I did for a long time.”

In the Gaughan family, there was no pressure on Gaughan or his siblings to be “phenoms” in any sport. At Bishop Gorman High School, the “small Catholic school” he attended, everything was on the table.

“When the swimming team was in, you swam,” Gaughan says. “When the volleyball season was in, you played volleyball. When the baseball team was playing, you played baseball. I played everything. When you were good at stuff, you did it.”

Was there anything his dad didn’t approve?

“I still to this day say if I wanted to be a ballerina, my father would have looked at me, gritted his teeth, bought me a tutu and taken me to class and hoped that I didn’t do well,” Gaughan says.

Even with a young racing career underway, including winning his first competitive race in the SNORE Midnight Special, the main thought in Gaughan’s mind was football. Recruited as a kicker, he had scholarships offers to Nebraska and Notre Dame .

But an injury led to a course change, landing the Las Vegas kid in the nation’s capitol to attend Georgetown University to play football.

However, it would be the basketball court in the Capital Centre that would leave the biggest impression on Gaughan.

A basketball court overseen for 27 years by legendary coach John Thompson.

ONE SHINING MOMENT

Gaughan remembers the shot well.

Outside of three free throws, it was the only shot he made in three seasons of playing basketball for the Georgetown Hoyas. It came in his junior year.

“Everybody loves making fun of the one basket,” says Gaughan, who played guard and wore No. 13. “It was a preseason NIT (game) vs Colgate. It was over Adonal Foyle, who played for the (Los Angeles) Clippers forever.”

At 5-foot-10, Gaughan put the shot over Foyle’s 6-foot-10 frame. He may or may not have seen the ball go in the basket.

“To this day, Allen (Iverson) and much of the team tell me I need to open my eyes next time,” Gaughan says. “But it was a beautiful bank shot, on (ESPN), with Bill Rafferty making the call.”

The moment is immortalized by framed screenshots sent to him by a friend, though it’s in storage while he renovates one of his houses.

“If you’re only going to make one basket, you’re probably going to have some memories of it,” Gaughan says.

Another thing he remembers is a motto.

The motto, instilled by Thompson, is represented by the little known symbol for the men’s basketball team – a deflated basketball.

“That deflated basketball comes with a statement that John Thompson has been saying since the 1970s, which is, ‘Don’t base your life on eight pounds of air,’ ” Gaughan says. “I always understood the meaning of that logo, and I’ve never let racing be what I was going to survive with.”

ELKHART LAKE, WI - JUNE 21: Brendan Gaughan, driver of the #62 South Point Chevrolet celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the NASCAR Nationwide Series Gardner Denver 200 Fired Up by Johnsonville at Road America, June 21, 2014 in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin. (Photo by Rainier Ehrhardt/Getty Images)
Brendan Gaughan celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the  Gardner Denver 200 Fired Up by Johnsonville at Road America, June 21, 2014. (Photo by Rainier Ehrhardt/Getty Images)

FAMILY MAN

At age 40 and 19 years into a NASCAR career that began the year he graduated from Georgetown, Gaughan has figured out what he doesn’t want to be.

“I don’t want to be one of those racers from the ’70s and ’80s where (their kids) said they never saw their dad,” says Gaughan. “I play Mr. Mom during the week and come here on the weekends and sleep.”

But he’s eager to get back to his boys, Michael James, 5, and William Ryland, 3. But they’re not in North Carolina, where many NASCAR families reside. They’re in Las Vegas. Gaughan returned to living there permanently in 2014 when he couldn’t stand being away from his family for too long.

“I was spending 18-20 hours apart from my family pretty regularly,” Gaughan recalled the day before in the TMS Media Center. “Luckily for me at RCR, there are seven guys on my race team that have been with me since 1999, 2000, 2002; they’ve been with me since I was in my early 20s. Life was getting difficult and they said ‘go home.’ ”

Gaughan believes going home worked. Within a short time, he won the Xfinity Series race at Road America –his first NASCAR victory in 11 years and his first Xfinity win in 98 starts. Thirteen races later, he was in victory lane again, at Kentucky Speedway.

“It’s actually what helped us win those races at the end of 2014 and what made us run so good last year,” Gaughan says. “My home life was much happier.”

When his children can’t be at the track, Tatum sends her husband video of them watching him race on TV. During the summer, the family relocates to North Carolina, but Gaughan only goes to his team’s shop when he’s needed.

Two decades into his NASCAR journey, the prospect of retirement is a tricky one for Gaughan.

“Every year I almost retire,” he says. “But it’s always been the same strategy in my eyes. If I can’t win races, I don’t want to be here and there was a stretch of my career where I didn’t win any.”

When he finally goes through with it, he’ll do what he did under the supportive watch of his father and the Las Vegas sun.

He’ll try something new.

NASCAR America at 6 p.m. ET: Las Vegas recap

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Today’s episode of NASCAR America airs from 6-7 p.m. ET on NBCSN and will look back at the weekend’s racing at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Steve Letarte will be joined by Kyle Petty and Nate Ryan.

If you can’t catch today’s show on TV, watch online at http:/nascarstream.nbcsports.com. If you plan to stream the show on your laptop or portable device, be sure to have your username and password from your cable/satellite/telco provider handy so your subscription can be verified.

Once you enter that information, you’ll have access to the stream.

Click here at 6 p.m. ET to watch live via the stream.

After Las Vegas incidents, Kurt Busch, Kyle Larson look for Richmond rebound

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Sunday’s NASCAR Cup playoff opener at Las Vegas leaves Chip Ganassi Racing with a mixed bag of potential strategies to develop heading into the next race, this Saturday night at Richmond Raceway.

Kurt Busch, the first NASCAR playoff champion in 2004, was involved in a wreck at Vegas with eventual race winner Martin Truex Jr. on Lap 189 that knocked him out of the event, ending with a last-place finish of 39th.

We were trying to go for the same spot in the middle, it wound up four-wide, got a fender rub and our day’s done,” Busch told NBCSN after he left the medical center. “It just happened that fast. Everyone wants to try to get to the middle and that’s where you make up the most spots and Truex and I were going for the same piece of real estate.”

As a result of the poor finish, Busch finds himself in 14th place among the 16 playoff contenders, a distant 63 points behind points leader Truex Jr.

How Busch rebounds at Richmond will go a long way toward determining whether he will advance to the Round of 12 following the Roval elimination race at Charlotte in two weeks. Busch is currently 14 points behind 12th-ranked Aric Almirola, but he is also only 12 points ahead of 16th-ranked Erik Jones.

There’s no question Busch is in need of a big comeback at Richmond, a track that he has had decent success at, including two wins (last time was in spring 2015), seven top five and 15 top-10 finishes in 37 career Cup starts there.

A win would immediately wipe out the Las Vegas nightmare and push Busch into Round 2.

And then there’s teammate Kyle Larson, who had a car that looked like it could challenge for the win at Vegas. But a costly pit road penalty — a behind-the-wall crew member trying to grab tires back over the wall slipped, touching the ground on pit road — pushed Larson back and he wound up playing catch-up the rest of the race. He settled for an eighth-place finish that potentially could have been a top five showing had it not been for the penalty.

Our car was better than what I thought it was going to be,” Larson said. “We were able to battle up front there in the second stage. Then, we had the pit road penalty and had to come from the back.

The restarts were crazy and I was just being safe. It probably cost us a little bit, but we still got a top-10 out of the day and some decent stage points. So, all-in-all, it wasn’t a bad day.”

Busch has one win this season, while Larson is still looking for his first.

Our cars have definitely been good enough to win, we just have to put the whole races together at this point,” Larson said. “We want to win. We’ll keep working at it and hopefully we can knock one out before the season is over.”

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Best of the rest: How non-playoff drivers did in Las Vegas

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The Cup playoffs began Sunday night in Las Vegas, and the playoff drivers made their presence known by occupying every spot in the top 10.

But what about the rest?

The first 16 spots were not filled by the 16 playoff drivers. In fact, playoff drivers only made up 13 positions in the top 20.

Here’s a look at the top-finishing drivers who are not contending for the championship:

Jimmie Johnson – finished 11th

With him not participating in the playoffs for the first time in his career, the spotlight wasn’t focused on Johnson very often Sunday.

But the Hendrick Motorsports driver finally put together his first complete run six races into Cliff Daniels’ tenure as his crew chief.

It was their first race together to not be involved in some sort of incident and it saw Johnson earn his first top-15 finish with Daniels. It’s only his second top 15 in the last nine races.

Austin Dillon – Finished 12th

The Richard Childress Racing driver earned his second straight 12th-place finish and his third consecutive finish of 12th or better.

He’s earned a top-15 finish in four of the last five races. That’s after only having one in a 12-race stretch.

Dillon also finished sixth in Stage 1.

“When the caution came out on Lap 180, we pitted to take another swing at loosening up this Chevy,” Dillon said. “Unfortunately, we had an uncontrolled tire penalty but it did allow us to come back down pit road to top off with fuel and adjust on the car more. We got the car better and made a good strategy to stay out for track position during a late caution to pick up additional spots.”

Paul Menard – Finished 14th

Menard took part in his first race since announcing last week that he would retire from full-time competition after this season.

The Wood Brothers Racing driver kicked-off his final 10 races for the team with his sixth top-15 finish in the last nine races. He finished outside the top 15 just once in his last 11 starts at Las Vegas.

Ty Dillon – finished 16th

The Germain Racing driver earned his best finish at Las Vegas in five starts (previous was 24th).

Dillon has finished 20th or better in six of the last nine races.

Daniel Hemric – finished 17th

The rookie driver earned a top-20 finish after two straight DNFs for wrecks. He has only three top 20s in the last nine races.

“Our handling balance would swing a lot from being really tight and then halfway through the run it was like a light switch and I would get super, super loose,” Hemric said. “We got that better throughout the race and back to where I could run more throttle, which allowed us to move forward into the top 10 and be more aggressive on restarts and make some hay during those time. On that last green flag stop we just got a little too free to where I couldn’t make the most time coming off pit road and just struggled a bit on that last run.”

Chris Buescher – finished 18th

The JTG Daugherty Racing driver extended his streak of finishes inside the top 18 to 16 races. The streak began at Kansas Speedway on May 11.

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Brad Keselowski rebounds to ‘steal’ third-place finish in playoff opener

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Usually when you see a race car on pit road with its hood up in the middle of a race, it’s a sign that a team’s race is over or will be soon.

It’s not typically a prelude to a third-place finish.

But that’s what happened to Brad Keselowski in Sunday’s Cup playoff opener at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

The adjustments made to his No. 2 Ford on pit road during the Stage 2 break, including adjustments to the front suspension, helped cure what was a “miserable” first 160 laps for Keselowski.

“Nothing I was doing was working,” Keselowski told NBCSN after his top-five finish. “We were losing spots to everybody out there.”

Keselowski, the race’s defending winner, qualified 18th. But while his Team Penske teammate Joey Logano went from 22nd to first in 34 laps, Keselowski was “just kind of bleeding positions.”

“I am disappointed we didn’t start the race any better than we did but very proud that we didn’t freak out and everyone kept their head on their shoulders,” Keselowski said.

After Stage 2, Keselowski pitted from 13th. He would pit twice under the caution before the start of the final stage.

“The team worked on it really hard there and got us back to a spot to where we could kind of almost steal a win,” Keselowski said. “I thought for a minute we might be able to.”

Keselowski thought if he had gained one or two spots on the final restart with 71 laps to go, he might have been the winner instead of Martin Truex Jr.

Instead, “we kind of stole a third place today,” Keselowski told NBCSN. “I guess I can’t complain. … Decent recovery, great fight. That’s kind of what these playoffs are about. Minimizing your bad days. That’s what we were able to do.”

Keselowski’s finish is his ninth straight top 10 at Las Vegas. He hasn’t finished worse than seventh on the 1.5-mile track since 2012.