Shortly after Brendan Gaughan entered the Charlotte Motor Speedway media center Friday night for interview obligations for the top three finishers, he marveled at the novelty of seeing his name placard in front of him on what's becoming a much more frequent basis.
"Glad to know they still make these with my name on them," Gaughan said. "It's been about a decade since I've been able to see them consecutively."
The Richard Childress Racing driver's math was nearly spot-on. Although Gaughan posted four straight top-five performances last season from June to September on his own part-time schedule, Friday night's runner-up finish in the North Carolina Education Lottery 200 marked his first three-race top-five streak on the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series calendar since 2003. It also marked his 200th career start in the truck tour.
The upswing has the 37-year-old Las Vegas native relaxed and sitting in a tie for fourth in the series standings, his highest ranking since his stellar six-win season in '03.
"It feels great. It's very calming and soothing to know that I'm getting there again," Gaughan said. "We always said as a rookie, you've got to have top-10s before you can have top-fives, you've got to have top-fives before you start winning. Well, we're three top-fives in a row again, so we're going to start putting it back where we need to be."
Returning to contender form has been, in part, a matter of putting the band back together. After competing in just eight truck races last year for RCR with moderate success, Childress made the offseason move to reunite Gaughan with crew chief Shane Wilson, who has been on the pit box for all eight of the driver's wins in the series.
Wilson started last year as the crew chief for Kevin Harvick's team on the NASCAR Sprint Cup tour, but communication issues led to a personnel shift before season's end. So far this season, the early reviews on team chemistry have been largely positive.
"Richard gives us the equipment to do it. Shane has been given the ability to do it and the tools to do it," Gaughan said. "That's all we ever did before in the past. ? We had the tools, we had the chemistry, we had an owner who gave us the ability. We have the same thing now and we've never doubted each other."
Friday night, Gaughan completed a spirited drive from 23rd starting position, gaining track position on an off-cycle pit strategy from Wilson. From there, he led 15 laps early and settled into pursuit of eventual winner Kyle Busch by the end of the 134-lap show.
Gaughan rode the high groove as he closed in down the stretch, but Busch thwarted his charge by moving up a lane in the final laps, disrupting the air and forcing Gaughan to lose momentum.
"He knows he's going to do it, and I know he's going to do it," Gaughan said. "I just didn't think he'd do it at that point, so I wasn't ready for it, and that's a little bit of rust on me, so to speak. I haven't been in that position lately. So, rust is knocked off and I will remember next time."
For as solid a turnaround as Gaughan has experienced, there's elation in the big-picture view. But in the shorter term, there's also frustration in being as close to the checkered flag as you can get without the spoils of victory.
For Gaughan, it makes perfect, paradoxical sense.
"It feels great to be mad as hell again," he said. "For the last eight years, you look at Kevin Harvick getting out of a race car pissed off he finished second. I remember sitting at home, going, 'Dude, I'd give anything to get a second-place finish right now,' but when you're driving Chevrolets that are this good, you can be mad. I had a truck that was gaining on Kyle Busch, and if I'm a little more on my game when he goes to take my air, I go to the bottom and continue to gain and we make a race out of it.
"That's what I was mad about ? but it feels good to be mad about second place."
Gaughan will have a chance to improve on the runner-up status in the series' next race, the Lucas Oil 200 at Dover International Speedway (May 31, 5 p.m. ET, SPEED). Although he doesn't have a top-five finish in seven career starts at the Monster Mile, he hopes to keep the momentum and good vibes going over the long haul.
"I'm as happy as I've been in a decade," Gaughan said. "It's Shane Wilson. It's me. It's some old-school mojo going on. It's kind of fun."
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