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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.

Truck Series Championship 4 Outlook

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Two past champions and two drivers who won their first Gander Outdoors Truck Series races this year are primed to battle for the championship Friday night at Homestead-Miami Speedway (8 p.m. ET on FS1).

Led by defending champion Brett Moffitt, the Championship 4 consists of Matt Crafton, Ross Chastain and Stewart Friesen.

There are no upstart phenoms in this group of drivers, where the average age is 33. The veterans came out on top. But who will be the last one standing?

Here’s a breakdown of each driver.

Matt Crafton (No. 88 Ford for ThorSport Racing)

Wins: None

Career Playoff wins: Two

Miami Record: Three top fives in 18 starts, including his win in 2014 to claim his second championship.

Championship-Caliber Moment(s): Crafton did everything he needed to short of winning a race this season to make the title race. He enters Miami with three top 10s in the playoffs and only one DNF through 22 races.

Outlook: It’s entirely possible Crafton could claim his third Truck Series title this weekend without having won a single race this season. In fact, he hasn’t won since the 2017 race at Eldora. The last time a national series driver won a title without a win was Austin Dillon with his Xfinity championship in 2013. Crafton will try to do it as the only Ford driver going against three Chevrolets.

“Just beat the other three guys,” Crafton said Friday night. “At the end of the day, just go out there and just make your truck the best you can in practice and Homestead’s always such an interesting one just because you have so much tire wear, you get so much tire falloff and you get one set of tires in practice. You have one shot to get the balance of your truck good. … But at the end of the day we know what trucks we’ll be racing for a championship.”

 

Brett Moffitt (No. 24 Chevrolet for GMS Racing)

Wins: Four (Iowa, Chicago, Bristol, Canada)

Career Playoff Wins: Four (two this season)

Miami Record: Will make his second Truck start at the track following his win there last year to claim the title. Finished 31st and 36th in his two Cup Series starts.

Championship-Caliber Moment(s): Led the final 27 laps at Bristol and survived three restarts in that span to fend off Chandler Smith and Chastain for the win.

Outlook: Could become the second Truck Series driver to claim back-to-back titles, following Crafton’s 2013-14 reign. Regardless of the outcome Friday, Moffitt won’t have to worry about his career prospects. After proving GMS Racing’s decision to go with him over Johnny Sauter was the right one, he’ll be back in the No. 24 next season.

“I think it’s a different type of pressure,” Moffitt said Friday. “Last year (was) ‘What if I don’t get the opportunity again?’ type of pressure. Where this year is I need to perform for those who gave me this opportunity and that’s the Gallagher family and everyone at GMS. They’re working as hard as they possibly can to give me fast Silverados week-in and week-out. Anything short of winning a championship will be a disappointment for all of us. We feel like we have the best opportunity to do it. We feel like we have the best people to do it.”

 

Ross Chastain (No. 45 Chevrolet for Niece Motorsports)

Wins: Three (Kansas, Gateway, Pocono)

Career Playoff Wins: None

Miami Record: Best finish in five Truck Series starts is eighth in 2013 while driving for Brad Keselowski Racing. Finished 16th last year with Niece Motorsports.

Championship-Caliber Moment(s): Got a late start on the points race after he switched his points declaration from Xfinity to Trucks after eight races in the Truck season. Checked off every box mandated by NASCAR to become playoff eligible, earning two wins in the process and scrapped his way into the Championship 4 without a playoff win.

Outlook: Chastain has everything to prove and nothing to lose Friday night. Eleven months since he lost a full-time ride in the Xfinity Series, Chastain has a shot at his first NASCAR title. Should nothing go wrong between now and February, Chastain will compete full-time in the Xfinity Series with Kaulig Racing.

“Bet ya’ll didn’t expect to see me here … A dream come true,” Chastain said after he finished ninth in Phoenix. “My team owner Al (Niece) just said it best, he said ‘Why stop now?'”

 

Stewart Friesen (No. 52 Chevrolet for Halmar Racing)

Wins: Two (Eldora, Phoenix)

Career Playoff Wins: One

Miami Record: Three starts with finishes of seventh and fourth the last two years.

Championship-Caliber Moment(s): After a penalty at the start of the Phoenix race for beating the pole-sitter to the start-finish line, Friesen bounced back and held off Brandon Jones to claim his first win on asphalt and advance to the Championship 4.

Outlook: Friesen and Halmar Racing didn’t compete in NASCAR until 2016. They’ve won their first two races this season and are one race away from a championship. Like Brett Moffitt last year, we can’t help but speculate it’s because of the mustache.

“We’ve got our favorite truck we’re running next week that we’ve gotten a lot of time under our belt with,” Friesen said following his win. “It’s going to be a tough race, obviously. It gets tough to pass at Homestead. The tire falloff is huge. It falls off lap-to-lap. You can go out and start a run, you’re wide open for a lap. Then it backs up, backs up, backs up. Then you get right up on the boards. You got to work that air bubble and there’s a lot of stuff you can manipulate at Homestead to help yourself out that I’ve learned the last (three races there). It’s a gritty race track paved with the aggregate of the area. It looks like you’re racing on sea shells, that’s what it is. That’s what the pavement plants have there. It’s cool and it’s exciting. ”

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Matt Tifft, Front Row Motorsports part ways so Tifft can ‘focus on my health’

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Front Row Motorsports and driver Matt Tifft announced Wednesday they have decided to end their agreement so that Tifft can focus on his health.

Tifft, a rookie in the Cup Series, said he can’t commit to racing in 2020 following his seizure at Martinsville Speedway on Oct. 26.

Tifft has been replaced by John Hunter Nemechek in the No. 36 Ford for the last two races and this weekend’s season finale in Miami.

Tifft, 23, had surgery to remove a tumor in his brain on July 21, 2016. Tifft said on Nov. 3 at Texas Motor Speedway that scans of the area where the tumor was located looked good. Tifft has shared his process since the seizure on social media.

Jeff Dennison, senior director of sales and marketing for Front Row Motorsports, said then Tifft had a two-year agreement with the team and it planned to honor that.

Statement from Matt Tifft:

“I’ve made the decision to focus on my health and there is no rush or timetable to get back behind the wheel. Because of that, I can’t commit to racing full-time in 2020. I can’t say when I’ll be ready to race again, but I believe I will come back. I love this sport, the people, and I would like to be a part of it next year in some capacity.

“I want to thank Bob Jenkins, Jerry Freeze and the entire Front Row Motorsports organization for allowing me to live my dream of racing in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. They are great people and it’s been awesome to race there. I look forward to what’s next in racing when the time is right.”

Statement from Bob Jenkins, Owner, Front Row Motorsports:

“Matt has always shown us a lot of determination and courage. He’s a fighter and I believe, like him, that he’ll return to driving. For now, we support Matt and his need to focus on his health and his family. Racing will be there when it’s time. We want to thank Matt and his family for being a part of Front Row Motorsports and helping us continue to grow.”

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Who is the championship favorite by the numbers? Miami’s tale of the tape

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The odds for the four championship contenders in NASCAR’s premier series have Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. virtually listed as co-favorites.

The statistics indicate why.

Across a bevy of numerical criteria, there isn’t much separation among the drivers in the championship round of the 2019 playoffs.

The staff at Racing Insights, which provides in-depth statistical analysis of NASCAR for NBC Sports and other media outlets, ranked the drivers 1-4 in 16 categories and listed Harvick as its favorite by the numbers, just ahead of Truex, Busch and Hamlin.

Courtesy of research compiled by Racing Insights, here’s the tale of the tape for Sunday’s championship battle on the 1.5-mile oval of Homestead-Miami Speedway.


CAREER STATISTICS:

Driver                Age       Starts    Poles     Wins     Top 5     Top 10   Laps led  Avg. finish


Kyle Busch          34          533        31          55          199        295       17,311         13.65

Denny Hamlin      38          505        33          37          161        258       10,143         13.65

Kevin Harvick       43          681        31          49          205        361       13,993         13.01

Martin Truex Jr.    39          512        19          26          101        204         8,803         15.76


HEAD TO HEAD IN 2019:

Truex was the highest finisher of the four drivers in 12 of the past 35 races (including four of the past 10 races). Busch was the highest finisher 10 times (none in the past 11), Hamlin seven times (four of the past six) and Harvick six (once in the past seven).


CHAMPIONSHIP EXPERIENCE:

Harvick (2014, ’15, ’17, ’18, ’19) and Busch (’15-19) each have reached the final round at Miami in five of the six years since this structure began in 2014. This is the fourth appearance for Truex (’15, ’17, ’18, ’19) and second for Hamlin (’14, ’19).


BEST CAREER ON 1.5-MILE TRACKS:

Harvick has the most victories (16) and pole positions (13) and best average finish (12.28), beating out Busch (13 wins, nine poles, 13.47), Truex (12 wins, seven poles, 13.39) and Hamlin (nine wins, six poles, 14.09)


BEST ON 1.5-MILE TRACKS IN 2019:

Truex and Hamlin have two wins apiece, but Truex gets the nod on average finish (8.3 to Hamlin’s 11.9). Harvick (one win) is second in average finish (8.7) ahead of Busch (10.5), the only contender without a win on 1.5-mile tracks this season.


BEST AT MIAMI:

Hamlin has two wins while the other three also have one apiece. Harvick easily leads in average finish (6.56) with 16 top 10s and 10 top fives in 18 starts ahead of Hamlin (10.57 average finish and nine top 10s in 14 starts), Truex (10.79 average finish and nine top 10s in 14 starts) and Busch (17.43 average finish and seven top 10s in 14 starts).


BEST IN 2019 PLAYOFFS:

Based on wins, Truex has been tops by winning three of the first nine races for a 6.22 average finish that puts him ahead of Hamlin (two wins, 8.78 average finish) and Harvick (one win, 6.11 average finish). Busch is winless with a 12.11 average finish.


BEST IN 2019 SEASON:

Truex has the most wins (seven) over Hamlin (six). Busch (four wins) has the most top 10s (26) and best average finish (9.17), putting him ahead of Harvick, who also has four wins but does have the most poles (six, twice as many as Hamlin).


BEST DRIVER/CREW CHIEF PAIRING:

The combinations of Kyle Busch-Adam Stevens and Kevin Harvick-Rodney Childers each have 26 victories, but Busch and Stevens have a better winning percentage (16 percent in 163 starts vs. 13.3 percent for Harvick-Childers in 211 starts). Martin Truex Jr. and Cole Pearn have 24 wins in 178 starts (13.5 percent) while Chris Gabehart and Denny Hamlin have won six of their 36 starts together (35 this season; one in 2017).


FASTEST PIT CREW:

Kyle Busch’s No. 18 ranked first during the season (14.083 seconds per four-tire stop) and playoffs (13.718). Harvick had the sixth-fastest crew this season (14.39) and 10th in the playoffs (14.357), Truex’s was eighth in the season (14.606) and seventh in the playoffs (14.145), and Hamlin’s was 10th in the season (14.687) and ninth in the playoffs (14.336).


FEWEST MISTAKES BY PIT CREW:

Limiting errors to speeding, tire and safety violations and driving through too many stalls (and omitting penalties involving damaged cars), Harvick’s team had the least number of penalties for errors with five, followed by Truex (six), Busch (seven) and Hamlin (nine).

NBC Sports Power Rankings: Denny Hamlin leads the way to Miami

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With his win at Phoenix and advancing to the Championship 4 race in Miami, Denny Hamlin is once again back on top of this week’s NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings.

Not surprisingly, all four drivers who will battle for the championship are in the top four in this week’s rankings. Kyle Busch is second, last week’s No. 1, Kevin Harvick, drops to third, and Martin Truex Jr. is fourth, as voted on by NBC Sports’ NASCAR writers.

Hamlin made the biggest jump in the standings, going from No. 7 last week to the top of the heap this week.

Conversely, Joey Logano, who was No. 3 last week, suffers the biggest drop, down to No. 8 – and also misses on his bid to defend last year’s championship this Sunday at Miami (3 p.m. ET on NBC).

Here is this week’s Power Rankings:

1. Denny Hamlin (39 points): Entered ISM Raceway outside a transfer spot to the title race and now he might be the favorite to win it all. Or at least be co-favorite with teammate Martin Truex Jr. Last week: Seventh.

2. Kyle Busch (34 points): Could be the underdog at Miami. With everything on the line, is one of the best performers in pressure-packed situations – especially with a championship and snapping a 21-race winless streak on the line. Last week: Fourth.

3. Kevin Harvick (29 points): Lone wolf in the Joe Gibbs Racing party for the championship. But he may actually have the edge, as he has three teammates who can help him, while it’s every man for himself for the three JGR drivers. Last week: First.

4. Martin Truex Jr. (28 points): Has not finished worse than sixth in the last four races. Also has the most wins (seven) of the four championship drivers. Last week: Second.

5. Ryan Blaney (26 points): Finished fifth, eighth and third in the Round of 8 but it still wasn’t good enough to advance to the title race. Last week: Fifth.

6. Kyle Larson (22 points): Fourth-place finish was good effort but missed out on last chance to run for a championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway, one of his best tracks. Was Chevrolet’s last hope; the bow tie has not reached the Championship 4 for the last three years. Last week: Sixth.

7. Erik Jones (14 points): Has three top 10s in last four races. While showed some signs of promise during the playoffs, the fact remains he’s likely going to finish 16th (last) among all playoff qualifiers when everything is said and done after Miami. Last week: Unranked.

8. Joey Logano (9 points): So close, yet so far away. Will we ever learn what happened to his car in the final stage that cost him a chance to defend last year’s title at Miami? Last week: Third.

9. Justin Allgaier (6 points): Xfinity win at ISM Raceway was his career-best 16th consecutive top-10 finish. Could he steal the championship from the “Big Three?” Last week: Unranked.

10. Christopher Bell (4 points): With Xfinity Series-leading eight wins, enters title race as favorite. This will be his Xfinity swan song before moving to Cup next season. What better way to leave than to go out on top. Last week: Unranked.

Others receiving votes: Clint Bowyer (3 points), Brad Keselowski (2 points), Cole Custer (2 points), Stewart Friesen (1 point).