Ichampions Week:/I Ted Musgrave
December 6, 2005 | 9:11 A.M. EST
As a young man, the son of Midwestern racing star Elmer Musgrave, he pursued the nomadic life of an aspiring competitor. Musgrave earned his spurs the hard way, chasing big money races from short track to short track, frequently sleeping in his car to save the price of a motel room.
The hard work, long road trips and sleepless nights paid off. In 1994, Musgrave made the jump to the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series.
Driving for Roush Racing, Musgrave won more than $9 million. A victory on NASCAR's premier series eluded him but Musgrave finished second on four occasions.
In 2001, another opportunity arose.
Jim Smith, one of four pioneer owners whose truck racing concept resulted in the creation of the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series, was forming a second Ultra Motorsports team. Smith wondered if Musgrave might be interested in driving his Dodge Ram truck.
The relationship was forged the old-school way: Over dinner, Smith wrote the terms of the deal on a cocktail napkin. They sealed the matter with a handshake – the same "contract" that's in effect today and as long as Musgrave wants to drive for Smith.
"We don't need contracts," said Musgrave. "If I don't have faith in him and he doesn't have faith in me, we don't need to be together."
Unsurprisingly, success came quickly.
Musgrave won in his second start with the team, at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Six more victories brought the first-year effort to within 73 points and one position of the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series championship.
With eight more wins and consistent finishes, he again was close but finished third for the title in three consecutive years.
The 2003 season saw Musgrave come the closest to giving Smith his first championship. Only a late-race penalty in the Homestead finale kept the pair off the champion's podium. "That's tough to take (but) I made a mistake," he said.
The set-back only made driver and team dig in and battle harder.
Musgrave took the early point lead in 2005, winning from the Bud Pole at Gateway International Raceway where he'd spearheaded a one-two Ultra Motorsports finish in 2001.
But, by mid-June, the championship lead had passed to Dennis Setzer. Four victories carried Setzer to an unprecedented advantage – 227 points – but Musgrave, Smith and crew chief Gene Nead didn't throw in the towel. They vowed to race hard and not quit until the last checkered flag had flown.
"You just couldn't be a nice guy any more but I had to do that to get myself in a position to win the championship," said Musgrave, who wound up with 11 top five and 15 top-10 finishes. "It wasn't like I was going to take anybody out; I just wasn't going to give anybody an inch."
The strategy worked. By October, Setzer had come back to the field and with four races remaining, the battle was joined. For the 10th time in 11 years, the decision went to the final event. Musgrave prevailed by 55 points, relegating Setzer to a runnerup finish for the third year in a row.
Musgrave, who'll celebrate his 50th birthday on Dec. 18, is NASCAR's oldest national touring series champion. He's the eighth series champion and sixth different champion in the last six years. Smith remains the only owner to have fielded a truck in each of the 267 races and joins charter owners Richard Childress, Teresa Earnhardt and Rick Hendrick in winning a series owner championship.
What's in store in 2006?
More of the same says Musgrave, whose wife Debi continues to show horses. The couple has three children. They split their time between North Carolina and Daytona Beach. Musgrave's second passion is restoring automobiles.
"As far as I know if I can go out and win races and win championships, why quit?" he said.