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Las Vegan Brendan Gaughan geared up for final Daytona 500 start

The laps were counting down fast in the 2018 Daytona 500, as they always do. The usual suspects were trading paint out front when an astute observer in the broadcast booth noticed they had been joined by a nonsuspect impersonating Speed Racer in the Saturday morning cartoons.

“Look at Brendan Gaughan!” Darrell Waltrip, a former 500 winner, roared almost as loudly as the snarling pack as it zipped around the high-banked turns. “Look at that thing go!”

Gaughan was running eighth, and then he was seventh …

sixth … fifth. He was inching forward in the lead draft. Then he was fourth, in the No. 62 car with the unfamiliar paint job.

Look at that thing go.

For a brief moment, it appeared Brendan Gaughan— the NASCAR driver from Las Vegas not named Busch — might even win the Daytona 500, driving for a little part-time team that has a plumber for an engineer.

In another brief moment, somebody make a mistake in the lead draft.

And then Gaughan was in the wall, and there went the crazy dream.

That’s just how it is in stock car racing. That’s especially how it is at Daytona.

“Everybody loves to say it’s a crapshoot, but there’s a skill to it,” Gaughan said about racing at Daytona and NASCAR’s other sprawling superspeedway at Talladega, Alabama, where engines are fitted with devices called restrictor plates that keep speeds down and tensions up.

It is these restrictor plates that allow the cars to run in snarling packs. They also tend to level the playing field between the powerhouse race teams and ones that have a solitary employee.

“Every time I show up we have a chance to win,” Gaughan said about the nature of racing stock cars on the big tracks that can be both whimsical and hair-raising.

The driver, 44, who in December announced he would be retiring for good after running one more part-time season, was talking almost as fast as he drives.

He was standing beneath a statute of gambling icon Benny Binion in one of the long straightaways at the South Point, the hotel-casino owned by his father, Michael. He was wearing a racing cap and a racing polo shirt and flip-flops with the Golden Knights logo on front.

He looked unpretentious, as usual. What you see is what you get with Brendan Gaughan, and you rarely see pressed jeans and tasseled loafers.

Later that day, he would be getting on a flight to Florida to compete in Sunday’s Daytona 500 for the last time.

He still believes he can win it.

Hobby turns to passion

This will be Gaughan’s fifth start in the Great American Race. That he has started his engine even once at Daytona is a story of Walter Mitty proportions.

He grew up racing off-road buggies in the desert surrounding Southern Nevada and took great delight in seeing how fast he could go before flipping them over.

“At the time, it was just a fun thing,” Gaughan said about making dust clouds in the dirt, which is how Jimmie Johnson, the seven-time Cup Series champion, got started, too.

The family business helped him move up the ladder in a sport driven by money and connections. But he was a rich kid who didn’t act like one. He was fast, and instead of causing wrecks, he learned to avoid them. He earned the respect of the established drivers and the admiration of NASCAR fans.

In 2002, Gaughan was named Rookie of the Year in the Truck Series. He won eight races and had 80 top 10s in 217 starts. He moved up to the Triple-A Xfinity Series where he won twice and had 67 top 10s in 217 races.

In 2004, fabled car owner Roger Penske thought enough of Gaughan’s skill on the track and his manner away from it that he signed him to drive his third Cup Series entry with Rusty Wallace and Ryan Newman as teammates.

Although Gaughan posted four top-10 finishes as a rookie, the Cup opportunity was short-lived. He was replaced by Travis Kvapil in the No. 77 Dodge. Kvapil had only two top 10s in his one season driving for Penske.

“Finishing in the top five for Roger Penske, my first race with Penske with Buddy Baker as driving coach and spotter, are memories that will go on forever,” Gaughan said of his first foray into Cup Series racing.

“But most of my memories have come with the Beard family.”

All in the families

The Beard family of Mount Pleasant, Michigan, reminds Gaughan of his own: Fun-loving, close-knit, driven to succeed.

Patriarch Mark Beard drove in six races in the Xfinity Series during the 1980s, with a best finish of ninth before entertaining a Walter Mitty dream of his own.

He wanted to race in the Cup Series, and he wanted to do it at its holy grail of speed.

It was three years ago, when Gaughan had tried to retire the first time, that he received a call from the Michigan man with the big idea. Beard said he had bought a fast car and a stout engine from Richard Childress, a legendary presence in the sport for whom Gaughan had driven.

The plan was to go to Daytona and then to Talladega, the other superspeedway where the rules also give an outsider a decent chance.

“It doesn’t happen (like that) in this sport anymore,” Gaughan said of a family-run team going wheel-to-wheel with those backed by major corporate sponsors and manufacturers. “I so appreciate the opportunity they’ve given me.”

The feeling is mutual said Amie Beard, the car owner’s daughter and the race team’s de facto manager.

“Brendan is considered a family member at this point,” she said from Daytona, where Gaughan will start Sunday’s race from 39th position in the Beard Oil Distributing/South Point Chevrolet. “This was my father’s dream, and having Brendan, having the car we have, we’re just having a great time. We’re going to enjoy every race that we have left with Brendan.”

And he with them.

Last year Gaughan and crew chief Darren Shaw — the team’s only full-time employee — thanked the Beard family by wrapping the race car transporter and pit box in sponsor graphics, so it would look like the ones the well-heeled teams have.

“You’re racing with the Rick Hendricks and the Roger Penskes, you need to show up like ‘em now,” he said, still talking as fast as he drives.

He brought up the 2018 Daytona 500, the one in which the little team with the part-time driver and the plumber who moonlights as an engineer ran up front with NASCAR’s best.

“Two to go, and the 62 car is in fourth, and we’re headed into Turn 1, and I’m like this,” Brendan Gaughan said, rubbing his hands together as if to produce a couple of more mph.

“He-r-r-r-e we go.”

Contact Ron Kantowski at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow @ronkantowski on Twitter.

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