DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (Nov. 6, 2003) -- Before last week's race in Phoenix, Ted Musgrave (No. 1 Mopar Performance Dodge) said he'd like to see the battle for the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series go to the season finale in a four-way tie. "Put ...
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (Nov. 6, 2003) -- Before last week's race in Phoenix, Ted Musgrave (No. 1 Mopar Performance Dodge) said he'd like to see the battle for the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series go to the season finale in a four-way tie.
"Put everything on the table, winner take all," said Musgrave before finishing second in the Chevy Silverado 150.
Musgrave very nearly saw his wish come true.
The closest, four-way wind-up in series history heads to Homestead-Miami Speedway for the Nov. 14 Ford 200 with just 39 points separating the final four championship contenders.
Brendan Gaughan (No. 62 Orleans Hotel Dodge), who's held the No. 1 spot since Sept. 4, leads Musgrave by 26 points. Travis Kvapil (No. 16 IWX Motor Freight Chevrolet) is 32 off the pace with Dennis Setzer (No 46 ACXIOM/Computer Associates Chevrolet) holding the fourth position.
Just about anything can happen in South Florida -- although Gaughan remains in control and can wear the crown by finishing fourth or better, no matter how his rivals fare.
"I'd rather be the leader and know that they not only have to beat your team but they also have to root for a little bad luck from others," said Gaughan, who leads the series with six victories. "There's only one strategy for us: win."
"I wouldn't call it a free-for-all but it's going to be one heck of a battle."
Musgrave, in some three decades of competition, never has won a championship. He was third in last year's NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series standings and the runner up in 2001.
He made up ground in Phoenix -- and moved to second, displacing Kvapil -- as Gaughan suffered a late-race engine problem and finished 12th."My first reaction when I saw Brendan have problems was that his problems weren't big enough," said Musgrave. "Now we need to go to Homestead, sit on the pole, lead the most laps and win the race."
"Then we will see what happens to Brendan, count up the points and see who won (the championship)."
Kvapil, who finished fourth in the 2001 season and won Raybestos Rookie of the Year honors, failed to take advantage of Gaughan's Phoenix woes -- and in the previous race at Martinsville Speedway.
"We were slumping at the same time as he was," said Kvapil, who still has finished among the top 10 in 20 of 24 races. "Any other year, with the finishes we've had, any one of us would have a pretty big [points] lead. The bar certainly has been raised this season."
Setzer has made the biggest late-season charge. He was 136 points behind after Gaughan's Sept. 27 victory at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and 71 back before finishing third at Phoenix.
"Our strategy is very easy, run as close to the front as we can all day and try and lead the race whenever possible," said Setzer, who entered the 1999 season finale with a shot at the title before finishing third. "We can be a little more aggressive because we are not in danger of losing spots in the final standings. We can only go forward at this point."
The track itself looms as one of the biggest obstacles for the championship hopefuls to overcome. It's been completely rebuilt -- with banking increased more than three-fold from its flat, six-degree layout on which the teams competed a year ago.
The NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series will be the first to test the venue on Monday, followed by the NASCAR Busch Series on Tuesday and the NASCAR Winston Cup Series on Wednesday.
All believe that the test is crucial since teams will have just two hours of practice on Thursday, prior to qualifying for the Ford 200.
"Our aerodynamics have changed several times this year and we have been working all season to learn what our truck is going to do at the larger tracks," said Setzer, whose three wins this season have come on short tracks.
When all is said and done, however, experience -- how a team reacts to the unknown and unplanned -- will play a big role in who becomes the sixth NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series champion. At least that's the opinion of Gene Nead, crew chief of Musgrave's Ultra Motorsports Dodge. Musgrave won his first series race at Homestead in 2000.
"Ted and I have been around a long time and have been to a lot of different types of tracks," he said. "Our driver has a lot of experience so we feel pretty good."