AP Photo/Chris O'Meara
Busch-Ballew Union A Unique SuccessThree years ago, Billy Ballew Motorsports had a midseason test session at Lowe's Motor Speedway but no driver. Taking his crew chief's advice on a last-second replacement, Ballew remembered the first time he laid eyes on Kyle Busch. "Here comes this young kid an hour later in his pickup with his Hans device and uniform on, he jumps in the truck and goes out and he was really impressed about it being fast," Ballew said. "From that point on, we were able to work it out." Busch wanted a shot at driving the team's entry at the next Craftsman Truck Series race at Lowe's. He won. That earned him a follow-up date the next week at Dover, Del., which he also won. It would end up being an 11-race season in the Ballew Chevrolet, with three wins and nine top-10s. Little has changed since then. Truck racing is only a part-time gig for the 22-year-old Joe Gibbs Racing Sprint Cup driver, yet Busch is the hottest man in the series. He leads the points after winning at California and finishing second in the opener at Daytona, carrying momentum from two wins in the final four events of last season. He's not going to be a threat to win a driver title in the trucks, not with the way the truck and Cup schedules go in different geographical directions at midseason. But Busch can have a hand in something bigger for a team like Ballew's, which is fielding two full-time trucks this year for the first time. As long as he keeps doing what he's doing, an owner's championship is a very real possibility. "If I got Kyle Busch for 16 races and [former Cup driver David] Stremme for six races and I don't know who for the other races, I think we've got as good a shot as anybody to win the [owner's] championship," said Richie Wauters, crew chief for the No. 51 Toyota. "Anything Kyle gets in, he has a chance to win. The kid is unbelievable, what he can do in a race car." Anyone in racing who didn't know that already knows it after the first two weeks of this season. Busch leads the truck and Cup points and is second in Nationwide points behind two-race winner Tony Stewart. But doing it in Cup is one thing, given Joe Gibbs Racing's massive operation and top-dog backing from Toyota. Doing what Busch has done at Billy Ballew Motorsports is something else. The next check Busch gets from the truck team will be his first; he drives the No. 51 for free. That's partially out of loyalty to Ballew and Wauters -- a friend who gave Busch a late-model Snowball Derby ride when he was 16 -- and partially because, well, there's no other way to do it. "His pay scale is very low, as in basically none. Hopefully one day when we get a corporate sponsorship I can be able to repay that," said Ballew, 48, an automobile wholesaler in Georgia. "We've never been fortunate enough to have the financing to be able to pay a lot of salaries for drivers -- we're just fortunate enough to have someone like him who is part of our family and loves to race." Ballew has had a rapport with a number of drivers, fielding entries for the likes of Denny Hamlin, Jeremy Mayfield, Geoff Bodine, Joe Ruttman and Martin Truex Jr. since starting the team in 2002. The team juggles the lineups and makes it work. In 2005, it finished fifth in the owner's standings after running a season with eight different drivers. It even juggles two manufacturers under one roof. This season, the juggling meant switching to Toyota in conjunction with Busch's Cup move from Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolets to JGR Toyotas, and that didn't go perfectly. Toyota couldn't provide enough motors to start the season, so Ballew had to stick with Chevrolet for its No. 15 team. The scrambling at the team's Mooresville, N.C., shop is intense, given the two nameplates and the fact there's only about a dozen full-time employees, a fraction of the number most two-car teams have. The payoff comes on race day, especially when Busch is driving -- he has wins in seven of 31 career starts for Ballew (with five different sponsors on the winning trucks). "It's phenomenal what he's been able to achieve, there's a lot more teams with more funding that have not been able to achieve that," Ballew said. "Whatever we're doing, it sure seems to be working." John Schwarb is a freelance journalist covering motorsports and a contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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