When Rico Abreu came to the Chili Bowl for the first time as a fan, he walked through the pit area shooting people with a marshmallow gun. On Saturday night Abreu got to walk through the pit area the 29th annual event after with the famous Golden Driller trophy in his hands as the Lucas Oil Chili Bowl champion. He fended off a late charge from Kevin Swindell to score the biggest win of his career.
“It’s pretty damn cool,” said Abreu. “Not too many people get to win the Chili Bowl. It’s a short list with only a few names on it. It’s just an unbelievable event. It’s cool to win this thing and it’s cool to think that your name will be on this list forever.”
Abreu started from the inside of the second row at the River Spirit Expo Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma, but he dropped a few spots at the start of the race. It appeared as though he might have been struggling, but that apparently was a tactical decision on his part.
“It’s not a long race, but it is a long race,” Abreu said of the 55-lap main event. “The track got a little more treacherous when the cushion built up. After a few laps I got after it to see where we were at and I stayed with (Clauson).”
The 22-year-old driver from Rutherford, California took the lead from defending Chili Bowl champion Bryan Clauson on lap 27 when he pulled a big slide-job going into turn one. They battled their way down the short backstretch and Abreu prevailed with the lead in turn three.
“I was waiting for him to slide me back,” said Abreu. “We drag-raced each other into three and I came out with the lead.”
Abreu quickly pulled away from Clauson and then encountered traffic as he reached the end of the field. Abreu said he tried to be as patient as possible in traffic to avoid any potential trouble.
“We got to traffic and I knew that if I could get through it I’d be fine, but I knew these guys would be coming at the end of the race,” said Abreu. “I made sure every pass I made counted.”
All Abreu had to do at the end was hold off a last-ditch effort from Kevin Swindell. Swindell was charging hard, but he ran out of time for the second year in a row.
“I did all I could to get back, but Rico was really good there at the end and he got a great restart and gapped Andrew Deal there pretty good,” said the four-time Chili Bowl champion. “By the time I got clear and got going he was too far out there to make up on a track that was that treacherous. It was tough to make up that ground.”
One driver that just about everybody thought would be a contender was Abreu’s teammate, and NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Rookie of the Year, Kyle Larson. Larson won every feature on the first night of the Chili Bowl to lock his way into Saturday’s main event. Larson started the race on the outside of the front row, but he didn’t really ever show the power that everyone thought he had.
He ran around third for the early stages of the race before spinning out by himself in turn two near lap 16. He then spun out again a few laps later.
Though Larson ran another Chili Bowl without taking home the Golden Driller, he still left the River Spirit Expo Center with a smile on his face as one of his good friends in Abreu got the win.
“That’s so cool for him to win the Chili Bowl,” said Larson. “I was trying to hold back my tears down there when I gave him a hug because we are best buddies. I know my dad is probably still sitting in the stands bawling his eyes out. This race is pretty emotional for everybody.”
It was emotional for all the fans in attendance as well. Abreu has quickly become a fan-favorite at the Chili Bowl, and his win left most of the
sold-out expo center as happy as could be. Chants of “Rico! Rico! Rico!” rained down from the grandstands as Abreu stood atop his race car and threw both fists towards the rafters. It’s a moment that Abreu said is one of the most special from his racing career.
“The fanbase I’ve built here is unreal,” said Abreu. “I never thought it would be this big. I’ve been coming here for five years now racing and to hear the crowd cheer is pretty cool. If you win this thing a few times they start booing you. It’s good that they’re cheering.”
-By Rob Blount, Speed51.com Northeast Editor -Twitter: @RobBlount
-Photo Credit: Speed51.com(powered by 51's Third Turn)
| 1||3||97||Rico Abreu|
| 2||10||39||Kevin Swindell|
| 3||23||71L||Damion Gardner|
| 4||18||67||Tanner Thorson|
| 5||16||1||Sammy Swindell|
| 6||8||21||Daryn Pittman|
| 7||4||71K||Kyle Larson|
| 8||6||15D||Andrew Deal|
| 9||20||5D||Zach Daum|
| 10||2||63||Bryan Clauson|
| 11||15||8K||Blake Hahn|
| 12||7||05||Brad Loyet|
| 13||1||5||Jerry Coons, Jr.|
| 14||22||7A||Darren Hagen|
| 15||17||2B||Ryan Bernal|
| 16||25||17C||Casey Shuman|
| 17||12||1ST||J.J. Yeley|
| 18||11||39B||Spencer Bayston|
| 19||5||63K||Chris Windom|
| 20||24||17RW||Dave Darland|
| 21||9||15X||Chad Boat|
| 22||21||5C||Colten Cottle|
| 23||14||71||Christopher Bell|
| 24||13||88B||Terry Babb|
Official Event Car Count: 326