Brendan Gaughan was back at it, back running around in circles Friday night, in Kentucky. He finished sixth in the NASCAR Nationwide Series race. It was an excellent result; the announcers said the No. 62 South Point Camaro was loose going into the turns, tight coming off.
If NASCAR Sprint Cup regulars didn’t cherry-pick Nationwide races, the Las Vegas driver would have finished second. The first four cars were driven by Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski, Las Vegan Kyle Busch and Paul Menard. Each a Cup driver, with a big souvenir trailer. Ryan Blaney was fifth, then Gaughan.
But last week, when the drivers with the big souvenir trailers were running in circles among themselves, Gaughan won a race on a slick road circuit in Wisconsin.
It was his first Nationwide victory in 98 starts.
People in racing uniforms with grease under their fingernails splashed Gatorade in his face. Gaughan’s crew. Some of those guys had been with him from the start.
Back home, they put his name up on the South Point marquee — his old man, Michael Gaughan, owns the place, and there’s a bar inside the casino with mahogany furnishings called Brendan’s Irish Pub. But a lot of people might have missed it, because the U.S. soccer team was getting ready to play Portugal in the World Cup.
The Nationwide race was delayed by rain and, as mentioned, it was on a road course, at a place where dairy cattle roam called Road America, where the laps seem longer than watching Greece play Japan to a scoreless draw.
A lot of NASCAR fans aren’t that enthralled with road course races, and, I’m mostly guessing here, with soccer. This is probably because both are the domain of foreign-born competitors, whereas NASCAR is an American-made sport featuring American-made drivers and American-made cars. And a few Toyotas.
Sure enough, a guy whose name ends in a vowel — Tagliani, from the IndyCar circuit — stormed from 22nd to second in two laps, nearly overhauling Gaughan at the end.
But Alexandre “Alex” Tagliani — Tags for short — didn’t overhaul Gaughan at the end.
When Gaughan flashed under the twin checkered flags first, NASCAR people took the monkey wrench on Gaughan’s back and tossed it into the air.
He’s such a nice guy, that Brendan Gaughan. Jimmie Johnson? Yeah, he’s a nice guy, too. But he wins all the time.
They were pleased Brendan Gaughan, who still calls people “Mister,” had broken through for the win. They knew the inside story, how Gaughan had been struggling in good equipment, equipment owned by a guy named Richard Childress.
Guys who drive for Richard Childress are expected to win stock car races. A guy named Dale Earnhardt certainly won his share, even when the equipment wasn’t good sometimes.
Gaughan has been racing for Richard Childress for three years, and he has many top-10 finishes. But he had no wins coming into the season. So Childress said he would buy his drivers new equipment, and then the week before the race in Wisconsin, Paul Menard, a Childress driver, won in Michigan.
Pressure? Yeah, Brendan Gaughan must have been feeling some.
It had been more than 10 years since he last won a race, one of those NASCAR truck races. He was in his 20s then, still on his way up. Now he was 38. Married, a couple of kids. Now he was driving on a flatter, more parallel line.
He was driving with a heavy heart, too. His grandfather, Las Vegas gambling pioneer Jackie Gaughan, had died in March.
Brendan had raced earlier this year with a big El Cortez Hotel decal on his hood, in honor of his grandfather. Only recently did he move out of Jackie Gaughan’s apartment at the El Cortez.
Dr. Jerry Punch, the ESPN pit road reporter, knew the story. So when he saw tears well up in Gaughan’s eyes in Victory Lane, he asked about his grandfather. Brendan went over to the car. He ran his hand over the name above the window where the driver sits.
Instead of Brendan Gaughan, it said John “Jackie” Gaughan, in yellow and red letters above the netting, and there was an American flag decal next to his grandpa’s name.
No, Alex Tagliani wasn’t going to catch Brendan Gaughan, not on this day, regardless of how good Tags is on a wet track.
“Life has not been easy for the Gaughan family right now,” the Gaughan named Brendan said, holding back tears, but there he was, standing in Victory Lane with Dr. Jerry Punch. And then he wasn’t just the nice guy with the rich daddy who had guarded Allen Iverson in basketball practice at Georgetown because dad knew the coach.
Brendan Gaughan was a NASCAR race winner again.
Six days later, he finished sixth. It was an excellent result.
ESPN showed his car a lot. The announcers said it was neat to see him win that race in Wisconsin. They said Brendan Gaughan was a helluva nice guy, and that he’s a pretty good racecar driver, too.
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0352. Follow him on Twitter: @ronkantowski.