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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.

Can Adam Stevens, Kyle Busch ‘get mojo back’ at Bristol?

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Kyle Busch is known for speaking his mind. He says what he has to say whether things are good, bad, successful or frustrating.

That kind of attitude has rubbed off somewhat on his crew chief, Adam Stevens.

After Busch finished a disappointing 29th in Thursday’s fourth Cup race in 12 days, dropping Busch from 8th to 12th in the standings, Stevens was asked in a Friday teleconference where he would assess the progress of the No. 18 team since returning from the COVID-19 hiatus.

Like his driver, Stevens didn’t beat around the bush – no pun intended.

“Overall, it’s been a disappointing start, I’m not going to sugarcoat it,” Stevens said. “You have stretches like that and I think we need to get our program a little better and then internally as a team we have to do better.”

In the four post-hiatus races, Busch finished 26th at Darlington, accidentally knocked Chase Elliott into the wall to finish second in the return trip to the Lady In Black, was fourth in the Coca-Cola 600, and then things just fell apart in Thursday’s race, his 29th-place finish being the second-worst finish this season (worst was 34th in the Daytona 500).

“In general, I would say we’re not as competitive as we’d want to be,” Stevens said. “We haven’t executed like we’ve wanted to.

“We’ve managed to get a couple good finishes in there, managed to get a couple poor finishes – the poor finishes were probably more poor than what they needed to be because of mistakes or circumstances we fell into during the race.”

A potential part of the problem with the No. 18 team – it’s a likely problem for most teams that have struggled since the return to racing – has been fatigue.

By the time Sunday’s race at Bristol is over, that will make five Cup races in 15 days. Plus, wih limitations on personnel numbers both at-track and at the JGR shop due to the pandemic, fatigue is apparent.

But after Sunday’s race, NASCAR Cup teams get a luxury of sorts: no midweek races this coming week and a chance for everyone to collectively catch their breath and rest up for nearly a week until the next race on June 7 at Atlanta.

“There’s quite a few of my crew guys who have been worn out here and spread pretty thin,” Stevens said. “They could really use a day or two off for sure, and they’re going to get that early in the week.

“We have a race in Atlanta with no practice, so the prep is down, but no midweek race … will make it a lot more palatable next week. Next week will probably be a week to get caught back up and assess where we’re at and maybe do a little bit more leg work on some of the future races so we can be a little bit more ahead. For certain there’s a large group of guys who need a day off.”

Sunday’s 500-lap race at Bristol offers a chance at redemption — if not a kind of home track advantage — for Busch and Stevens. In 29 Cup starts there, Busch has eight wins — including three in his last five starts there — plus 12 top-5 and 17 top-10 finishes.

If there ever was a place to right the listing No. 18 ship, the world’s fastest half-mile may just be the place.

“What makes Kyle (Busch) good at Bristol doesn’t change,” Stevens said. “He’s just so good at adapting what he’s doing behind the wheel to suit how the track is changing. Hopefully he’ll get to showcase more of that this weekend.

“It’s the track and the nuances of the track and how that changes and the fact that it changes is what makes KB shine there. He can make time on the bottom, in the PJ1, he can make time around the top when that’s the place to be and he’s not scared to move around and really is exceptional at getting through the lapped traffic as well.

“If you had to circle a place to get your mojo back, this would probably be it.”

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Ricky Stenhouse Jr.: Forget practice, qualifying, ‘I just like to race’

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In the new normal of NASCAR, there are a lot of things drivers are getting used to.

From health screens when they get to the track to carrying their own helmets and other chores that previously were done by assistants, drivers are adapting.

One thing that Ricky Stenhouse Jr. likes is how, with the exception of one qualifying session for the Coca-Cola 600, that the first four Cup races back since the COVID-19 hiatus have not had practice or qualifying.

Stenhouse, to paraphrase late Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis, wants to “just race, baby, just race.”

Even though NASCAR’s race-only policy is predicated upon keeping things simple and staying safe in the pandemic, Stenhouse definitely has embraced the mindset of climbing in the car, firing the motor up and slamming on the gas pedal. No warm-ups, no testing different setups, no nothing. He just wants to chase the checkered flag.

“I just like to race, I like to be in the race car,” Stenhouse said in a media teleconference Friday. “Practice and qualifying doesn’t do it for me as much as getting out and competing in the race, as (opposed to being) in the car on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

“Really there’s nothing like going out and racing. I enjoy racing as much as possible.”

Stenhouse, who finished fourth in Thursday’s Cup race at Charlotte Motor Speedway, has also enjoyed NASCAR holding two of its first four Cup races back since the coronavirus hiatus in mid-week and prime time.

While that type of schedule makes it difficult and even grueling for crew chiefs and the rest of the team, count Stenhouse as hoping NASCAR moves forward with more mid-week races next season and beyond once coronavirus and the limitations it has placed upon the sport are gone.

“I like the Sunday-Wednesday schedules; I wish we could kind of keep doing that,” he said. “I’ve never been a fan of shortening the season because I just like to race.

“I’m going to try and sprinkle some more dirt races in when I can, if NASCAR lets me (he laughs). For me, I enjoy the racing aspect of it. I love being in the race car as much as possible. Like probably the other crew chiefs said, the guys at the shop definitely have a lot more work as far as getting cars ready week in and week out.

“So, that’s always been probably the biggest question mark of running these mid-week races to catch up our schedule is the toll that it’s taking on the crew guys. But it’s all been well received, they enjoy it and they love us back racing.”

In his first season with JTG-Daugherty Racing, Stenhouse has admittedly struggled. In the first eight races, the driver of the No. 47 Chevrolet has just two top-five finishes: Thursday night and third at Las Vegas.

Every other finish has been 20th or lower.

But Stenhouse sees light at the end of the tunnel. Ever since NASCAR returned from the pandemic hiatus, Stenhouse has seen improvement within his team that may not necessarily be reflected in the final result, but he definitely likes what he’s seeing from his team and the performance of his race car.

“Looking at the equipment that they have here, the people, the parts and pieces, the Hendrick power, the new Chevy Camaro body – I feel like those are all really good things to put together,” Stenhouse said. “Bringing my crew chief Brian Pattie over, bringing Mike Kelley over, with a lot of knowledge and a lot of experience to work in, they jumped right in. I felt like they’ve been working with these guys for a long time and it’s only been a short amount of time.

“So, I feel like we are definitely capable of running in the top 10. I feel like last night was definitely a night that we hit it right. We had a really good car and I hope we can continue to run top five and contend for wins.

“But I definitely feel like we can run top 10 with everything that we have right here. We have to do that – we have to limit my mistakes, limit the issues that we’ve had and just have good, smooth, solid nights, and I think we can run top-ten.

“I told the boys that we needed a good run going into Bristol, my favorite race track, knowing that I really like the way these cars drive. And if it drives as good at Bristol as it has at these other race tracks, I feel like we’re going to have a shot at a win. I wanted a good solid top-15 run, no issues, no mistakes and it turned out to be way better than that. So, we’re looking forward to hopefully carrying that momentum into Sunday.”

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Starting lineup for Sunday afternoon’s Cup race at Bristol

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Brad Keselowski and Aric Almirola will lead the field to the green flag in Sunday’s Cup Series race at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Keselowski will start first and Almirola will start second.

The top five is completed by Joey Logano, Ryan Blaney and Martin Truex Jr., putting all three of Team Penske’s cars in the top five.

The field was determined through a random draw of the following groups:

  • Positions 1-12: Random draw from charter teams in those positions in owner points
  • Positions 13-24: Random draw from charter teams in those positions in owner points
  • Positions 25-36: Random draw from charter teams in those positions in owner points
  • Positions 37-40: Open teams in order of owners points

Click here for the starting lineup.

NASCAR Cup Series at Bristol

Race Time: 3:30 p.m. ET Sunday

Track: Bristol Motor Speedway; Bristol, Tennessee (half-mile oval)

Length: 500 laps, 266.5 miles

Stages: Stage 1 ends on Lap 125. Stage 2 ends on Lap 250.

TV coverage: FS1

Radio: Performance Racing Network (also SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Streaming: Fox Sports app (subscription required); goprn.com and SiriusXM for audio (subscription required)

Next Xfinity race: June 1 at Bristol (300 laps, 159.9 miles), 7 p.m. ET on FS1

Next Truck Series race: June 6 at Atlanta (130 laps, 200.02 miles), 1 p.m. ET on FS1

Chase Elliott ‘Sent it, for Judd’ in Charlotte Cup Series win

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A rollercoaster week for Chase Elliott ended Thursday night with him in Victory Lane for the second time in three days and for the first time this year in the Cup Series.

But Elliott’s win at Charlotte Motor Speedway, the seventh Cup victory of his career, had additional weight for the Hendrick Motorsports driver. Not long after the race, Elliott posted a picture on Instagram of him celebrating on the frontstretch. At the bottom of the picture was a drawing of a character saying “send it.”

A sticker of that figure, which is a walrus, is located on the front bumper of Elliott’s No. 9 Chevrolet.

“Sent it, for Judd,” Elliott wrote in the Instagram post. “This ones for you brother, miss you my friend. That sticker will forever stay on the front of that 9 car, I promise y’all that.”

On Friday, Dale Earnhardt Jr. asked Elliott on NASCAR America at Home the meaning behind the sticker.

“Judd (Plott) was my best friend since I was a kid, he and I grew up together,” Elliott said. “His mom sang at my parent’s wedding and just my best friend since I can remember. Lost him last fall. That sticker is kind of remembrance of him. He had a tattoo on his leg of that little walrus and that was kind of his little logo.

“So I had a friend make up some stickers last fall after (Judd passed), and I just thought it’d be really cool to carry that moving forward. He was my best friend as long as I can remember and just always supportive and just felt like it’d be special to carry that for the rest of my career and always remember him and he was one of a kind and he was a genuinely good dude.”

The walrus decal and its placement on Elliott’s bumper is similar to one that can be found on the bumper of Jimmie Johnson’s car. It’s dedicated to his friend Blaise Alexander, an ARCA driver who was killed in a crash at Charlotte in 2001, and the 10 people who were killed in a Hendrick Motorsports plane crash in 2004.

The walrus decal isn’t the first time Elliott’s honored his late friend. Last November, he had a tribute to Judd on his nameplate above the driver-side window.

Following Thursday’s race, the Cup Series next competes Sunday at Bristol Motor Speedway. Like the previous four races, it will be a one-day show. Elliott shared his thoughts on how a limited at-track schedule and condensed crew rosters are bringing the No. 9 team together.

“It’s brought an excitement back to it that I haven’t had in a little while, from the standpoint of I feel like I’m short-track racing again,” Elliott said. “I feel like it’s brought our team closer together because different guys on our team are having to do more jobs. Like (crew chief) Alan (Gustafson is) having to come off the box and catch tires during the pitstop. And that’s brought him closer to our pit crew. I’m having a couple more items to do and keep up with than what I had before and I think all that is bringing us closer together. And for me, it’s just been a lot of fun kind of condensing the group and doing more racing and less sitting around.”

The one-day show at Bristol has an added element to it. Without any prior track activity before Sunday’s green flag, the traction compound added to the lower lanes in the turns will be more difficult for drivers to navigate.

Elliott thinks it’s been “overlooked a little bit.”

“(The traction compound) does not like to be run on until it gets run in and those are two things that don’t go good together, right?” Elliott said. “Because it doesn’t have grip and nobody wants to run on it. But we all want it at the same time because we want another option. What I’ve noticed is it seems like it takes the leaders catching lap cars and forcing cars into a position that they don’t want to be in to start to run that stuff in. Until it gets run in, it’s really hard. It’s really slick. And I think that’s probably the biggest thing is just, you know, marrying up all those things, right? Do we have the splitter height, right? How slick is that stuff going to be? How long is it going to take it to come in. And when it does come in how long until it wears out and the top becomes the advantage because it typically does by the end of a race.

“But we typically have a full weekend to practice and qualifying and a Xfinity race. And a lot of times we don’t see that top line come dominant until late in the Cup race on Sunday. So I’m really curious to see how all those things play out.”