TULSA, Okla.-- Loyalty paid off for Rico Abreu on Wednesday night at Tulsa Expo Raceway.
While his former teammates, Christopher Bell and Kyle Larson, elected to venture from the familiar confines of Keith Kunz Motorsports, Abreu stayed the course with the organization that had led him to two Golden Drillers in the Chili Bowl Nationals.
And for the fifth time in six years, Abreu soldiered on to win his Wednesday night qualifier.
“Keith’s my guy,” Abreu said after the victory. “I’ve ran with him for eight years, and he believes in me, and I can see it. I can feel it. That’s what creates this positive energy between us, no matter what the circumstances.”
Neither Bell nor Larson missed has a beat since leaving the nest. After partnering with close friend Chad Boat, Bell has been extremely competitive. He won Tuesday night’s Race of Champions at Tulsa as well as his heat race and fifth-straight Thursday night qualifier.
Larson has been lights-out since funding his own midget program under the direction of crew chief Paul Silva. Larson completed the California sweep in November, then won the Gateway Nationals in December. He held off Jonathan Beason to win his sixth Tuesday night qualifier.
Certainly, Bell and Larson’s departure left a void at KKM. Although there’s a waitlist for young, hot-shoes to enter Toyota Racing’s development program, Bell and Larson are generational talents.
But Abreu is far from chopped liver, particularly at Chili Bowl. He proved that again on Wednesday night. The combination of Abreu and Kunz is simply magical. After eight seasons with the Columbus, Ind.-based operation, the 27-year-old St. Helena, Californian couldn’t imagine racing for anyone else at the half-mile dirt track.
“My driving style really fits this place,” Abreu said. “The track prep is phenomenal every year. And going back to having great race cars—when Toyota and Keith Kunz get together, they have a deadly combination. You have these sponsors that get behind you, and they want to see these cars win.
“That’s what we try to do when we get out on the track, we try to win these races.”
With top prospects such as Zeb Wise, Buddy Kofoid and Cannon McIntosh joining the KKM fold, Abreu's role has evolved from young gun to mentor, especially with the two teenagers. Abreu was instrumental in coaching McIntosh, 17, to his first A-Main win in Monday’s event.
But on Saturday night, it will be every racer for himself. And nothing would make Abreu happier than to deliver to Kunz his sixth consecutive Chili Bowl win and his eighth golden driller overall.
“I see all the hard work that goes into Keith Kunz Motorsports,” Abreu said. “They allow me to keep my sprint car at their shop and I see the hours they put in. Keith’s loyalty to me, you just don’t see that with this generation. You see a lot of drivers changing, team owners coming in, coming out. Keith has been doing this a long time. I think he said he’s only missed one—and that was the first one (1987).
“It’s pretty cool to have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be able to race for him and his belief in me is what pushes me the most. His whole team believes in me and allows me to have this level of success.”