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Xfinity Series Spotlight: A Q&A with Brendan Gaughan

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Brendan Gaughan hasn’t had “that big crash” yet.

It’s the crash that 1963 Indianapolis 500 winner Parnelli Jones once told the 42-year-old driver would be the sign it was time for him to get out of the business.

Brendan Gaughan drives his No. 62 Chevrolet at Iowa Speedway. (Photo by Daniel Shirey/Getty Images)

“This was when I was young,” Gaughan told NBC Sports. “(Jones) goes, ‘trust me. You’ll know that crash when you have it and the first thing that goes through your mind is, ‘you know, the family business isn’t so bad right now.’

The family business happens to be the operation of the South Point Hotel, Casino and Spa in his hometown of Las Vegas

Gaughan’s first big crash occurred in the late 90s and it was a hot one.

“We crashed, big fireball,” Gaughan says. “Forty-foot fireball into the air, fuel cell to fuel cell, huge explosion. Lost an eyebrow because I had my visor up. Broke two ribs. Get out of the race car and I’m laying in the grass, trying to catch my breath and I’m dying and remember going, ‘That was a brand new race car, we just built it. No! No!’

“Then I remember rolling over and going, ‘That’s not the family business. I guess it’s not time yet.’ I remember saying to myself audibly out loud and that came from Parnelli. I can still say that to this day. I had a big crash at Kentucky a couple of weeks ago and unfortunately, even after I hit the wall, it was a hard hit, I still didn’t think about the family business being better. I wish I did.”

The Richard Childress Racing driver is still going at it and is currently 12th in Xfinity Series standings through 18 races, putting him on the bubble for the playoffs. In his sixth full-time Xfinity season, Gaughan is looking for his first win since 2014. It’s been a challenge, as the No. 62 team has just four top 10s. At this point last year, he had eight.

But Gaughan is confident the month of August will be kind to him.

“We’re going to win a race in August,” Gaughan said. “The whole month of August is probably the greatest month NASCAR has ever put together. … You look at what we go to, you go Watkins Glen, Mid-Ohio, Bristol, Road America and you begin September with Darlington.

“You name me a month of racing that is more action-packed, worth more. You’ve got Bristol, the Colosseum of our sport. You’ve got Darlington, arguably the most difficult place in the history of NASCAR to race. Then you’ve got three road courses, two of them are still completely, fundamentally sound not NASCARized road courses, which are tough as nails and you’ve got the best NASCARized road course in the country (Watkins Glen). If they added the boot I would put it back in the unbelievable category. But it is still a road course that has penalty and still has some proper technique to it. It’s just the best month of racing ever. ”

The following Q&A has been edited and condensed:

NBC Sports: Last year with the race at Mid-Ohio in the rain-

Gaughan: That was the greatest NASCAR race of my life, by the way. Twenty years in this sport, Mid-Ohio was the greatest NASCAR race ever!

NBC Sports: It was the craziest thing to watch, what was it like for you getting through that race?

Gaughan: Unbelievable. It was awesome. I am so proud that NASCAR didn’t stop us, that they let it go. It was so much fun. I have never had that much fun behind the wheel of a stock car. I had the entire right side of the race car ripped off. I had water flowing into the race car in buckets. I went from 30th to third or fourth to 30th to eighth to 30th to fourth. Me and Andy Lally, Andy Lally in an underfunded team kicking everybody’s butt (on) when to put tires on, when to take them off, when to put them back on because (the rain) started again. That race right there was the greatest NASCAR road race, if not the greatest race of my life. I had so much fun.

NBC Sports: If you could add any track to the Xfinity schedule, what would it be?

Gaughan: I would have to start with Laguna Seca, because I’m a road racer and I think that and Road America are my two favorite road courses in the country. If you’re talking oval, I wish we still went to Monroe, Washington. It doesn’t have the facilities to hold us. I wish there was a track up in the (Northwest) somewhere, I miss that area. … You know, the only track I can think of, I would like to go back to Memphis. I loved racing in Memphis. It was a great town, great short track that was tough as nails to drive. I would love to go back to Memphis.

Brendan Gaughan talks with teammate Ben Kennedy in May at Talladega Superspeedway. (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images)

NBC Sports: At RCR you’re the grizzled veteran among a lot of baby-faced guys. How easy is it for you to relate to those guys who are half your age?

Gaughan: Well, look I can still drive a race car better than most, that’s the nice thing. There are things they do that I can’t. They do those simulators and they run the hell out of them and can spend hours in it. Me, not so much. They keep me young. The little jokes me and Brandon (Jones) do to each other, that keeps me young. I have fun with it. And when they need me, I’m not the guy that’s in your face to coach. I’m not like certain guys that love to be paid to be a driver coach or in your face and all aggressive about it. If you need me, I’m here. And that’s what I’ve told every single one of them. And when they need me, I give them the best advice I can give them after 20 years of being in this sport and I do my best to answer the question for you and it’s work great.

NBC Sports: Are your sons Michael James, 6, and William Ryland, 4, showing any interest in auto racing yet?

Gaughan: Not as long as I can help it. Look, I hope that my boys want to race in the desert like I did. Like I will do even when I finally hang this up. I’m going to race until I’m 80. I’ll be racing the stuff I want to race and where I want to race and when I want to race and how I want to race. That’s what me and my family have always done. We love racing. My father still races in a race every year. We are racers. So if my boys want to race in the desert and have fun and do a hobby, which is what me and my brother did, God, I want that more than anything because it’s such a fun hobby. … It’s so enjoyable. As a family, as a group. But I don’t care to have them be NASCAR racers. I’ll let them go do something smart with their brains instead of beating against concrete walls.

NBC Sports:  Have you ever named a car or race car?

Gaughan: Lots of them. At the old Orleans racing team, the old South Point racing team … the guys named just about every car out of that shop. “Lone Star” is the most famous one. That’s the truck that got me into the Texas Motorsports Hall of Fame. It won all four races in a row at Texas (Motor Speedway). That truck raced six times in its career and it won four races. We used to save it just for Texas. … And it wasn’t because it won four times at Texas. That’s not why it was called ‘Lone Star.’ … ”Because only one man dare give me the raspberry.’ Space Balls. One of our favorite movies is Space Balls.

NBC Sports: What’s on your bucket list that’s not related to racing?

Gaughan: My kids did it this summer and I’m still pissed that daddy didn’t. For me it’s dive with a whale shark. The kids swam with a whale shark this summer when they were on the boat and I couldn’t go. I had work to do. They went down and wound up freakin’ swimming with whale sharks. I was so pissed off. I was still happy for them, but I was still pissed off!

NBC Sports: Why the whale shark?

Gaughan: It’s the gentle giant of the world, man. One of the biggest fish in the sea and it’s gentle. The kids were swimming inches from it and it has no desire (to attack). It’s just a sweet, gentle, beautiful creature. It has a mouth that could swallow my child whole and not even think twice about it. It could swallow me whole and not think twice about it. It’s the beautiful, gentile creature. That’s what I’ve been trying to do, dive with one of them.

NBC Sports: If you were in the Cup race at Bristol, what would be your introduction song?

Gaughan: (Really long chuckle) I have a very bad sense of humor. So I like to do things that piss people off. It would depend on my mood going into the week. One of the songs I could probably use is, because people think what they want about people like myself and the background that I have and the upbringing I have, so part of me would (choose) Barenaked Ladies’ “If I had a million dollars.”

Previous Xfinity Series Spotlights

Justin Allgaier

Darrell Wallace Jr.

Michael Annett

Ryan Reed

Brandon Jones

Daniel Hemric

William Byron

Spencer Gallagher

Cole Custer

Ross Chastain

Elliott Sadler

Ben Kennedy

Blake Koch

Brennan Poole

Matt Tifft

Tyler Reddick

Kyle Benjamin

Ty Majeski

Ryan Sieg

Dakoda Armstrong

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Watch NASCAR America’s MotorSports Hour 5-6 p.m. ET on NBCSN

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Today’s episode of NASCAR America presents the MotorSports Hour runs from 5 to 6 p.m. ET, where we break down news not just in NASCAR but also IndyCar, Supercross and other racing series.

Our analysts will be Marty Snider, Parker Kligerman and AJ Allmendinger.

If you can’t catch today’s show on TV, watch it 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 5 p.m. ET to watch live via the stream.

With a new track layout, Sonoma gets new fan viewing area with ‘The Point’

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When NASCAR returns to Sonoma Raceway June 21-23, it will do so to compete on a slightly different road course than what they’ve competed on since 1998.

For the track’s 50th anniversary, it will return to its original 12-turn, 2.52-mile circuit.

That utilizes the “Carousel” portion of the track, a sweeping downhill corner from Turn 4 down through Turns 5 and 6 to the facility’s longest straightaway before reaching the Turn 7 hairpin.

With the reintroduction of the “Carousel,” Sonoma is introducing a new area for fans to enjoy that area of the track.

The track has rebranded the peninsula between Turns 1 and 6 as “The Point.” This area offers up-close views of both corners, as well as a direct perspective of the start/finish line and flag stand.

“The Point” will be upgraded with a 1,550-square-foot Humboldt Redwood shade structure, more than 700 feet of stand-up bars along the fence line and new food and beverage locations. Access to the area is free to all fans, and terrace seating is available on the hillside adjacent to Turn 1.

 

In the drivers seat: A look at one of the coolest jobs in NASCAR

Photo: Dustin Long
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Some moments they are Joey Logano. Other times they are Jimmie Johnson. Or Kevin Harvick. Or some other driver.

This isn’t a video game or make-believe. This is role-playing in the real world: They pilot a Cup car. Crew members leap from the wall. Air guns whine. Lug nuts fly.

Cup drivers rarely have time to take part in pit practice. So someone has to drive the car. That perk typically goes to an entry-level employee whose duties often include gluing lug nuts to wheels, stacking tires and monitoring air tanks.

Mark Morrison said he’ll never forget the first time he drove the car in pit practice at Hendrick Motorsports.

That was 17 years ago.

One of the sport’s coolest jobs is more than a joy ride. Teams rely on these drivers to place the car in the right position so pit crews can hone their skills. With track position critical and tenths of a second the difference between winning and losing, what happens in pit practice can make a difference in a race.

It all begins with who is driving the car.

THE FRATERNITY OF PIT CAR DRIVERS

Marcus Horton is 30 but looks young enough to get carded. His father, Phil, is the pit coach for the Drive for Diversity program but Marcus Horton didn’t plan to be a pit crew member.

He has a business degree from Marshall University but admits: “For me, I wouldn’t want to be in an office all day. I like getting my hands dirty. I probably should have took up something different in college than business. I like art, I like photographs, but I’m not sure how well that was going to translate into the real world. I thought maybe I should do something that would benefit me in the long run.”

A couple of years after graduating, Horton asked his dad if he would coach him to be a pit crew member. The younger Horton was in the Drive for Diversity program for three years and served as a pit crew member for Carl Long’s Xfinity team last year. Horton joined Stewart-Haas Racing in December as a developmental pit crew member.

Erick Harps drove the car during pit practice at Hendrick Motorsports until a recent promotion to the engine shop. (Photo: Dustin Long)

Erick Harps, 22, was recently promoted to the engine shop at Hendrick Motorsports, ending his tenure driving the pit car. He trained at Universal Technical Institute in California. Harps moved to North Carolina two years ago to work in the sport. About six months after he arrived, he got a job at Hendrick Motorsports.

Chris Tomberlin, 22, joined Team Penske on Jan. 2 as a developmental pit crew member. He will graduate this year from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte where he was a receiver on the football team.

“I’ve always been a fan of racing,” Tomberlin said. “The (job) opportunity presented itself. I couldn’t not accept it.”

That was before he found out he would be driving a stock car.

NOT YOUR FATHER’S CAR

When Harps told his parents he drove a car in pit practice at Hendrick Motorsports, his mother screamed in excitement.

But that wasn’t the first time he had been in a car. He had to undergo training — as any Hendrick pit car driver does — before taking part in live pit stops.

“You can’t step into one of them and think you’re going to drive it,” Harps said.

Hendrick Motorsports’ car has a race engine, providing more horsepower than a standard passenger car. The Hendrick car has a manual transmission, not automatic like many passenger cars, so if you can’t drive a stick, you wouldn’t be able to drive these cars.

Hendrick Motorsports also sets the car for each track. With the series heading to Talladega Superspeedway, that means the car will have a smaller brake package. 

At Stewart-Haas Racing, they have three different pit cars, so Horton has to know each of them. Each steering wheel is different. One is tight, another turns more freely and the other one rates between the two. The brakes also are different in each car. They’re touchy on one car, less so on the others.

“Every day it’s a like a new day for me trying to figure out where the car is going to stop and how I’m going to handle it,” Horton said.

That’s why each driver makes test runs before pit crews jump in front of the car.

“SILVER DOLLAR EYES”

One of the biggest adjustments for any pit car driver is seeing people run in front of the car during practice.

“The craziest thing is just from driving normally out on the roads, your instinct is to avoid a person” said Andy Papathanassiou, director of human performance at Hendrick Motorsports and a former pit car driver.

Having people run in front of the car is jarring for new pit car drivers. (Photo: Dustin Long)

“But when you are driving a pit practice car, you have to just focus on your mark because there are guys jumping all around you and you can’t veer from your path or then they will be in danger. So you have to literally put the blinders on and just expect that they’re going to get out of your way.”

Chris Krieg, pit crew coach at Stewart-Haas Racing, says when pit car drivers first do live stops, they all have the same condition. He calls it “silver dollar eyes” for how their eyes widen.

Horton admits when the pit crews started jumping in front of him, it altered how he entered the pit stall.

“I was stopping earlier and slowing down a lot sooner,” he said. “I don’t want to hurt anybody on our team. It was definitely a hard time because they would be like ‘You can bring it in hotter,’ and I’d be like, ‘Actually I can’t because I think I’m going to hit you guys if I do that.’”

DO YOUR JOB

If the car stops beyond where the crew is positioned, they have to adjust and it slows the stop. Same for when the car stops too short.

There are times when a pit coach will tell the driver to purposely stop short or long or close to the pit wall to test the pit crew and prepare them for possible race situations. Other times, it’s more important to hit the right spots so the pit crew can get their reps.

“The more you practice during the week with the guy who knows exactly how to put the car where he needs to put it, the better you feel for the race track on Sunday,” said Landon Walker, fueler for William Byron’s team.

At Stewart-Haas Racing, they’ll have Horton or whoever else is driving the car to try to imitate each of the drivers for the pit crews. Each driver has their own nuance on how they enter the stall, something you likely can’t tell unless you saw them pit time after time. There are those who will lock their brakes to stop or roll the car in or stop short consistently. 

“The (pit car) driver is critical,” Krieg said. “If we waste a bunch of practice because they’re not hitting the marks where we need them to, they’re wasting time and reps and beating and banging on the crews’ body. Every rep is valuable and those guys have to be spot on.”

A PART OF THE ACTION

It’s a ride of a lifetime even if one is only traveling about 50 yards to the pit stall.

“It’s got a lot of power behind it,” Harps said. “The clutch is not an easy thing to overcome just because it’s stronger than a regular clutch. You have to have a lot of leg power. It’s very hard to get going without spinning the tire.”

Once the car stops in the stall, there’s still more for the driver to do. Keep the wheel straight for the tire changers. Don’t stall the car.

“It’s cool to actually be able to feel the changers hit their lugs and feel the jackman make his first punch on the car, feel the carriers slamming that tire on the car,” Tomberlin said. “It’s rare to be able to experience it.”

It’s an experience only a few get. It’s quite a ride.

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Ryan Sieg’s crew chief shares secrets to early success in Xfinity Series

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What started off as a pleasant surprise this year has become the norm for Ryan Sieg Racing in the Xfinity Series.

Through eight races, Ryan Sieg and his No. 39 Chevrolet have yet to finish worse than 12th.

The team based just outside of Atlanta, Georgia, has an average finish of 8.6, sixth-best among series regulars.

Heading into the second off-weekend of the year for the Xfinity Series, Sieg is probably still cleaning up from the Larry’s Hard Lemonade shower he received after he placed fifth last Friday at Richmond.

According to veteran crew chief Shane Wilson, the second non-superspeedway top five of Sieg’s career was made possible by what Sieg didn’t do a month earlier at ISM Raceway in Phoenix.

By not tearing up their short-track car at Phoenix, it allowed the team to take that car’s setup and add Richmond-specific tweaks that “worked out pretty good,” Wilson said Tuesday night on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “The Late Shift.”

Sieg has kept his cars clean so far, finishing on the lead lap in every race but one (Bristol, 12th) and earning five top 10s. That’s the most in his seven-year, 133-race Xfinity career.

Shane Wilson has been heading Ryan Sieg’s surprise run in 2019. (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Two weeks before Richmond, Sieg captured the first stage win of his career by not pitting late in Stage 2 at Texas Motor Speedway.

What Wilson has accomplished with the family owned team is a product of a late union and a “big departure” from what Wilson was used to just a few years ago with Richard Childress Racing.

Wilson, who last year was crew chief for Kaz Grala’s upstart Fury Race Cars, was hired a couple of weeks before Speedweeks in Daytona.

Since then, Wilson wakes up every Monday around 3:45 a.m. at his home in the Charlotte area and drives around 200 miles to the team’s shop in Sugar Hill, Georgia.

“Most times I get home by Wednesday night and then we go race,” Wilson said. “That’s kind of been my schedule so far. A little here, a little there. I chase parts in the Charlotte area, Mooresville some days. It gets me home a little quicker. There’s a few of us that make the trip down here and they have a nice little, kind of like a college dorm up above the shop and some of us stay there. It’s been fun. It’s different, it’s fun and it’s been challenging.”

Another part of Sieg’s surprise performance this year are the cars he’s been keeping unscathed. The team bought three new cars from RCR in the offseason.

“We had the ECR engine deal and it was good year to buy cars from RCR because they downsized from numerous Xfinity cars to a single car,” Wilson said. “I feel like we got good stuff.

“It’s a good relationship. The Siegs bought or leased engines from RCR for many years ever since they’ve been racing in the Truck Series. So they’re a good engine customer to ECR, bought a lot of chassis from Richard. That’s kind of where it stops. There’s a few different tiers that you can get nowadays and we don’t get simulation or any kind of parts tracking or the database or anything like that.

“Chevrolet helps us with a few tools. We have what we need and we don’t have a whole lot extra, but we have enough to compete.”

Wilson said recruiting talent to help out the small team is made easier with fewer Xfinity teams.

But he’s not just getting help from the North Carolina and Georgia areas.

“I got a good friend of mine doing our shocks now and shipped some more of those up to him in Vermont,” Wilson said.

Wilson said the experience reminds him of the days “when we volunteered and helped out our best friend.”

“Ryan has some experience, so he’s very helpful,” Wilson added. “His feedback is good now that we have current cars, good engines. More people working on it. We’re able to put up more of a fight at the race track.”