Has The Next Great Chili Bowl Contender Arrived?
Jan 12, 2022
With Kevin Thomas Jr. hounding him over the final five laps, Rico Abreu had spiritual help from the bottom of the ramp.
It was team owner Keith Kunz making the ‘elbows up’ gesture at his two-time Chili Bowl Midget Nationals winner. Abreu knew Thomas was there, but this was a reminder to get after it. Even after a decade together, Abreu isn’t immune to needing a push, and Kunz knows exactly what his champion and friend needs.
It’s why they work.
"He gives me the same signals every year," Abreu said. "It’s like elbows up, keep going mentality to pump me up a little bit. In those circumstances where I’m getting pressured, I tend to stay as calm as I can, even if I’m going to get passed … so Keith was giving me the signal that I was being pressured."
It wasn’t a signal for drive harder, but one to drive smarter.
"Towards the end of the race, my pace slowed down because I was trying to minimize my mistakes," Rico said. "You have to stay calm in those circumstances. At the end of the day, the best car is going to win the race, and you can’t overdo it."
Together, Abreu and Kunz have won the 2013 USAC National Midget Championship and two consecutive Chili Bowl Midget Nationals from 2015-16. They’ve won 16 USAC races and 12 POWRi races. They know each other as well as anyone.
Unlike Kyle Larson and Christopher Bell, who succeeded on pure natural talent, Abreu reached that level on work ethic and the encouragement from those around him.
"He thrives on confidence," Kunz said. "You have to build his confidence up sometimes. If you get him on the right level, he can do anything. There are different guys that you can get mad at or talk to a certain way, and Rico, you have to keep pumping him up.
"You have to tell him that he can beat these guys, that we’re faster than them. If you’ve got his confidence and he believes it, he’ll park it."
And Kunz always seems to know what to say.
"Keith knows how to get inside you and turn you up," Abreu said. "It’s a pleasure to race for him. He’s been doing it a long time. He knows what people need. We had a long talk about our race car and he helped Kaz (Townsend) too. We made little changes and got where we needed to be tonight."
Now it’s a matter of getting Rico back to where he was before Bell and Larson went on their streak of five combined straight wins, which of course was preceded by the two that he won.
"It’s about minimizing your mistakes as it comes down to the end of the race," Abreu said. We’ve got ourselves some good track position now, so it’s a matter of executing."
And maybe a little gesturing from Keith Kunz to get him there on Saturday.
B-Features: Top 4 advance to the A-Feature.
B Feature 1 (15 Laps): 1. 8K-Jake Neal; 2. 7M-Brody Roa; 3. 1G-Justin Peck; 4. 21T-Tommy Kunsman; 5. 2U-Slater Helt; 6. 50-Daniel Adler; 7. 99-Anthony Macri; 8. 42-Garth Kasiner; 9. 77W-Joey Wirth; 10. 7-Shannon McQueen; 11. 75U-Brooke Tatnell; 12. 22G-Troy Morris III; 13. 22L-Lucas Scherb; 14. 17L-Cody Trammell; 15. 77J-John Klabunde; 16. (DNS) 31X-Carson Hocevar
B Feature 2 (15 Laps): 1. 26C-Chance Crum; 2. 83-Dominic Gorden; 3. 51-RJ Johnson; 4. 2W-Tony Bruce Jr; 5. 5LK-Jordan Kinser; 6. 85T-Ryan Timms; 7. 22X-Steven Shebester; 8. 91T-Tyler Thomas; 9. 16C-David Camfield Jr; 10. 44-Eric Wilkins; 11. 67K-Jonathan Shafer; 12. 1N-Ryan Padgett; 13. 5C-Chase Howard; 14. 11C-Mike Woodruff; 15. 47M-Jake Hagopian; 16. (DNF) 79S-Landon Simon
A-Feature: Top 2 advance to Saturday's A-Feature.
A Feature (30 Laps): 1. 97-Rico Abreu; 2. 5T-Kevin Thomas Jr; 3. 52-Blake Hahn; 4. 27W-Colby Copeland; 5. 4B-Jason McDougal; 6. 1R-Brad Sweet; 7. 19A-Chase Randall; 8. 26C-Chance Crum; 9. 47Z-Corey Day; 10. 55D-Nick Drake; 11. M1-Colby Stubblefield; 12. 83-Dominic Gorden; 13. 21S-Karter Sarff; 14. 25V-Billy VanInwegen Jr; 15. 7M-Brody Roa; 16. 21T-Tommy Kunsman; 17. 2W-Tony Bruce Jr; 18. 25K-Taylor Reimer; 19. 17-Tanner Berryhill; 20. 51-RJ Johnson; 21. 1G-Justin Peck; 22. (DNF) 19-Parker Price Miller; 23. (DNF) 4D-Robert Dalby; 24. (DNF) 8K-Jake Neal
Lap Leader(s): Jason McDougal 1-13; Rico Abreu 14-30
Hard Charger: Chance Crum +8