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Musgrave gets up to speed

Ted Musgrave was sprawled in the boss' office in Livonia, N.C., sunk comfortably in Jack Roush's leather chair and chatting almost nonstop on the company phone. After a brief introduction, a caller asked how the 39-year-old driver was doing that morning.

"You wouldn't believe how good I am right now," Musgrave said.

Actually, it's quite believable. For the past four seasons, he has been the NASCAR Winston Cup circuit's unofficial "Driver to Watch," a guy whose name invariably was on everyone's list of "can't miss" prospects.

His wasn't a promise of instant stardom like Jeff Gordon, but more of gradual success. It was always just a matter of him finding the right team, the right set of circumstances, the right chemistry.

Sitting almost engulfed in the spacious high-back chair, Musgrave quite obviously is there.

This season, his second with Roush Racing, he is on pace to post single-season numbers that would surpass his career figures before 1995. Heading toward Saturday's Pepsi 400 at Daytona International Speedway, he already has as many top-five finishes (five) as he had in his four previous seasons combined, and with eight top-10 runs less than halfway through the year, he could top the 16 he already had.

He has been more steady than startling. He has come home respectably every week but one (33rd at Rockingham), finishing on the lead lap in six of the past seven races.

"I've tried to climb the ladder and not just try to jump (up it)," said Musgrave, who is fourth in the series points standings after finishing a career-high 13th last year. "I took every step, and I've done it quietly, which is good _ in case I slipped, nobody would see. I see myself as just a quiet, consistent runner, and I'm going to try to stay that way if I can."

Fat chance of that now. Maybe Musgrave could have stayed on the fringe had he kept running for RaDiUs Motorsports, which gave him his true break into Winston Cup racing in 1991 after letting him run four events the year before. Nothing against the RaDiUs outfit, but it isn't on the same level with teams like Hendrick Motorsports or Penske Racing when it comes to equipment, budget and personnel.

Roush Racing, which also employs driver Mark Martin, is one of the elite teams in the business, and its marriage with Musgrave has brought both more than either anticipated this season.

"When we were looking for a driver, I made a list and Ted was on it, but he wasn't one of the first three," Roush said. "Mark said the only person on my list that he wanted to work with was Ted. So, I said okay, and he and (crew chief) Howard (Comstock) have become a good combo. I'll be very disappointed if we can't keep him up there in the points."

Musgrave, an Illinois native who lives in Troutman, N.C., landed the Roush job when Wally Dallenbach Jr. was let go after the 1993 season _ far more ordinary circumstances than those that led to his ride with RaDiUs in 1990, which was run then by just Ray DeWitt.

Rick Vogler was set to drive for DeWitt that season but was killed in an accident at Salem Speedway before ever driving DeWitt's car. Needing a driver quickly, DeWitt took a chance on Musgrave.

Still, there are a few things yet to go Musgrave's way _ like winning a Winston Cup race. In 136 starts, he hasn't turned into Victory Lane. The closest he has come were second places at Martinsville and Pocono.

But for the rapidly ascending Musgrave, that, too, figures to be another milestone he'll pass sooner rather than later.

"We're at the point now where we need to get that extra little boost that can knock you over the top," Musgrave said. "We're not going to change anything we're doing. We're going to press to try and get it as soon as we can, but we're not going to get off our long-term commitments as far as what we want to accomplish."