TULSA, Okla. – Rico Abreu sailed into the lead halfway through Wednesday night’s A Feature and cruised to victory in the Lucas Oil Chili Bowl Nationals preliminary as all hell broke loose behind him.
A back-to-back Chili Bowl champion in 2015-2016, Abreu locked into Saturday’s main event, as did elated second-place finisher Colby Copeland, who survived a run-in with third-place starter Ronnie Gardner to edge Blake Hahn for the coveted runner-up spot.
Driving for Keith Kunz Motorsports for the eighth straight year, Abreu started second and passed pole winner Brad Sweet for the top spot on Lap 15 and led the rest of the way.
“I know Keith’s cars really come in the last 10 laps,” Abreu said. “I was just waiting there and hanging out and waiting for him (Sweet) to make some mistakes. We caught traffic, and I turned the pace up. That’s how you get going in these races. You’ve got to set a little faster pace than the lapped cars. I felt like that’s where our advantage was.
“At the end, there was a bunch of cautions. I just tried to make good decisions and be smooth.”
A vicious crash after 23 laps were completed halted the race. Jesse Colwell’s No. 14 car flipped over the No. 45 of Parker Price-Miller, who climbed from his car and drew the attention of the emergency medical staff after an apparent blow to the helmet.
That was a precursor to Sweet’s untimely exit at the hands of Hahn, who mistimed a slider in Turns 3 and 4 and knocked Sweet’s car into the outside wall. Hahn continued to a third-place finish, but Sweet’s car left the track on a wrecker.
“I hate to have done anything like that,” Hahn said. “I don’t drive like that—I’m sure anybody that watches me knows that. I feel awful for it, but it’s the Chili Bowl…We were going to lock the sucker in. That was our goal coming into the weekend.
“We had a really good run going there. I thought I had a really good run going down the back straightaway. I thought I had him cleared.”
Trying to avoid Copeland’s stalled car near the midpoint of the race, Copeland actually drove over Gardner’s right rear tire in a move he equated to “monster-trucking.”
Though his car was overheating, Copeland was able to withstand a late charge from Hahn.
“I feel like I won,” Copeland said. “Man, this thing was a war wagon when I blasted through Ronnie Gardner over there. We weren’t great all night, and then, in the feature… that was so awesome. I hit Gardner so hard that I thought that might be our water leaking all over the track. The temp gauge went to 280 (degrees), and it was running hot, so I just left the fuel on, not trying to save, hoping that it would stay cool.
“It made it. We might have to change engines for Saturday, but it was well worth it.”
Chase Johnson finished fourth from the ninth place starting spot, followed by six-time Chili Bowl winner Sammy Swindell, who started 13th.
Three drivers with ties to the NASCAR world advanced to the A Feature on Wednesday night. Veteran Cup driver Ryan Newman, a Chili Bowl rookie, grabbed the 15th spot on points. J.J. Yeley raced from his 10th -place starting spot to fourth in the first B Feature, edging Billy VanInwegen for the final transfer position by .010 seconds.
And Karsyn Elledge, niece of former Cup star Dale Earnhardt Jr., pulled off a strong drive in the second B Feature, advancing from eighth on the grid to third to earn the 22nd starting spot in the A Feature.
None of the three found much success in the A Feature, though Yeley drove to 11th from his 23rd-place starting. Newman and Elledge both were involved in multiple incidents and came home 21st and 22nd, respectively.