Setzer's slide has set stage for classic duel

Barring a cataclysmic turn of events, either Ted Musgrave or Dennis Setzer finally will snare the trophy that has been just barely out of reach for years.

Musgrave, a former Cup competitor who moved to full-time Craftsman Truck Series racing with Ultra Motorsports in 2001, finished second in points that year -- a sign of things to come. He was third in points each of the last three seasons, but the championship has remained elusive.

Setzer, a two-time winner in the Busch Series, joined the Truck Series full-time in 1999 and finished third in points that year. He has been second in points the past two seasons, falling 46 points shy of Bobby Hamilton for the 2004 crown.

But with three races left this season, it's seemingly a two-man race.

Musgrave holds a 51-point edge over Setzer heading into Friday night's race at Texas, with two-time series champion Ron Hornaday 243 points back in third.

Unless both top drivers experience problems at Texas or Phoenix, they'll settle the battle between them this time around. And they'll likely settle it with smiles.

Although Tony Stewart and Jimmie Johnson toss around barbs in the Nextel Cup garage, the atmosphere is more laid back in the Truck Series. The competition is just as fierce on the track, but off it people are willing to relax a bit, so don't expect any attempted mind games.

"We ain't got brains in our head to mess with, I guess," Musgrave says with a laugh. "No [mind games]. We just goof around like usual. That's a whole different deal over there in the Cup side, and that's why we like the Craftsman Truck Series so much. I wouldn't mind going out [with Dennis] and buying dinner and just sit around and have fun. Over there [in the Cup garage], it's just a lot more tension. Head games [are] going on over there, but not here that I know of."

Setzer feels the same way. After racing against Musgrave for five years, usually in the thick of championship battles won by someone else, he doesn't see any use in trying to psych out his rival.

"I know exactly how Ted is going to race me when I get to him. I would just as soon race against Ted as anyone else on the race track right now," Setzer says. "If I catch him and I am better than he is, he may wave me by or he may race me to death. But that is Ted every time. He is always consistent and never going to crash you because of it. It doesn't matter if we played games, we both know each other, so it doesn't matter."

Each driver is coming off a tough race at Atlanta, where tire problems struck Musgrave twice and an ill-handling Morgan-Dollar Motorsports Chevrolet hindered Setzer's efforts. At this point, Musgrave believes the driver with the best luck the next three weeks will win the championship at Homestead, Fla.

"I don't believe that his team is better than mine or I'm a better driver than him or he's a better driver than me or anything like that," Musgrave says. "I think everything's so equal. Right now, I call it the 'Racing Gods.' Whatever's going to happen on the racetrack -- you get caught up in a wreck or you run over something and get a flat tire -- I think that's the only big thing that's going to make the championship swing one way or another right now."

Both contenders have felt the fickle side of fate the past few years, but Setzer says that's simply part of life in the Truck Series.

"The championship seems to go down to the wire every year at Homestead. A couple of years ago, it was down to the last lap and Ted was waiting for 15 minutes after the race was over to find out if he won the championship or not," Setzer says. "[This is] just [a] standard Craftsman Truck Series battle. Hopefully, we can keep it this tight until the end and both of us be in the championship hunt going to Homestead."

Travis Kvapil ended up winning the championship in 2003, with Setzer nine points back and Musgrave just 18 points shy of glory.

Setzer, who had a 227-point lead after winning at Indianapolis Raceway Park in August, has struggled since. IRP marked his fourth win in six races, but he needs to rebound at Texas -- a track where he has won twice.

"We had our hot streak through the middle part of the season, and were able to build the lead up in about six or eight races," Setzer says. "Ted was, unfortunately, having bad luck with little things going wrong for them. But then they started getting their team back together, the crew chief was getting the right people in there under him and it paid big dividends for them. They have really come on strong here toward the end of the season.

"Our team has worked hard all the way through; we just stumbled a little. We don't know exactly what has happened since IRP. Things just don't seem to fall the right way for us at times. We aren't doing anything differently than we were when we had the winning streak going; sometimes things just happen that way. It has been a great year for us. We have won four races. It is the first time in my career that I have won four races, so that part has been great. Our [Chevrolet] Silverado has been competitive. We have won on big tracks and small tracks. Our team is still capable; we have all the right equipment, and we have the right people."

The question is whether that's enough to battle past Musgrave and his Dodge the next three weeks. Rest assured, Musgrave isn't clearing space for the championship trophy just yet.

"Dennis and I both, no matter what, each one of us wants that trophy and we're both running as hard as we can," Musgrave says. "The teams are working as hard as they can. Whatever happens, whatever the 'Racing Gods' are going to give us, is going to happen.

"We're both deserving of it. The teams are both deserving of it. If Dennis wins it, I'm going to shake his hand and say, 'Congratulations. You had the best team this year.' He's just had a lot of bad luck, and we've capitalized on it. It's just a dogfight right now to the end."

Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at NASCAR Scene magazine and a contributor to ESPN.com.