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Rico Abreu Leads Red Hot Chili Bowl Field

| , RacinToday.com Tuesday, January 12 2016
The best dirt racers in the country will be competing wheel-to-wheel this week at the annual Chili Bowl in Tulsa, Okla. (Photo buy Dave Hill)

The best dirt racers in the country will be competing wheel-to-wheel this week at the annual Chili Bowl in Tulsa, Okla. (Photo by Dave Hill)

By Len Hayward | Senior Correspondent
RacinToday.com

TULSA, Okla. – Rico Abreu feels no pressure in attempting to defend his title during the 30th annual Lucas Oil Chili Bowl Midget Nationals.

Sounds simple but that’s the level of confidence the Rutherford, Calif., driver has searchright now. His win at the Chili Bowl in 2015 helped turn Abreu into a national star during a season that included starts in NASCAR’s K&N and Camping World Truck series.

Abreu rates among the favorites as this year’s five-day racing festival kicks-off Tuesday on the quarter-mile clay oval inside the River Spirit Expo Raceway. Driving for highly-successful crew chief and car-owner Keith Kunz, Abreu knows the competition will be tough as it gets.

“It was my biggest win of my career, it was huge,” Abreu said Monday during the annual pre-race press conference. “The turning point of my success, it was just the icing on the cake. I still hear about it a lot a year later, people congratulating me on winning the Chili Bowl. It means a lot to me; this whole event means a lot to me and
I just really want to win it again.”

Abreu won 19 races and competed in 109 events overall in 2015, finishing the season by running in Camping World Trucks Series races at Phoenix International Raceway and Homestead-Miami Speedway.

“It’s not as many as I did in 2014, but I also didn’t race as much as I did in ’14,” said

Rico Abreu will be chasing his second straight victory at the Chili Bowl. (File photo by Todd Warshaw/Getty Images)

Rico Abreu will be chasing his second straight victory at the Chili Bowl. (File photo by Todd Warshaw/Getty Images)

Abreu, who will qualify on Wednesday. “This year, I’m fixing to run a lot more.”

Abreu will attempt to defend against a field featuring an event-record 346 entries following the same game plan as last year – make no mistakes and add the right kind of luck. Abreu took the lead from 2014 champion Bryan Clauson on the 27th lap of last year’s race and led the rest of the 55-lap event, holding off four-time champion Kevin Swindell.

“I think that guy who minimizes his mistakes is going to win and last year I had a damn near-perfect race,” Abreu said. “Guys are just getting better and better and guys that haven’t run good in the past are starting to run very good here and getting their cars a lot better. I don’t think you can really count anyone out on Saturday night in that A-Main.”

BREAKING DOWN THE NIGHTS

Tuesday

For the eighth year, the best of the best will square-off in a 20-lap shootout during the Vacuworx Invitational Race of Champions on Warren Cat Qualifying Night. A collection of 19 drivers made the cut for this year’s VIROC. The standards of qualification: being a past driver champion, driving for a past owner champion, being a past VIROC winner or being the reigning National Midget Driver of the Year.

Favorites: Darren Hagen, Joey Saldana, Kevin Thomas Jr., Kyle Larson, Jonathan Beason.

THE SCOOP: Thomas will be driving in a car co-owned by Kevin Swindell and certainly will be able to draw on the four-time champion’s knowledge. Larson won on Tuesday night in 2015 after being relegated to the C-Main;iIf he stays unscathed this could be his “night to lose.” Local favorite Beason always is fast at home.

Competition continues with Wednesday’s River Spirit Casino Qualifier, Thursday’s John Christner Trucking Qualifier and Friday’s Vacuworx Global Qualifier with everything culminating in Saturday’s Lucas Oil Chili Bowl Championship.

The top three in each Qualifying Night A-Feature will transfer directly into the Saturday championship event with the remainder of Saturday’s features lined up according to the Qualifying night finishes.

Wednesday

Favorites: Sammy Swindell, J.J. Yeley, Steve Buckwalter, Casey Shuman, AJ Fike, Rico Abreu.

THE SCOOP: Abreu won on this night last year but will face a stout field that includes Swindell and Pennsylvania hot shoe Buckwalter. Yeley always puts on a show at the Chili Bowl and could finally break through with a preliminary night win.

Thursday

Favorites: Aaron Reutzel, Jerry Coons Jr., Andrew Deal, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Tracy Hines, Danny Stratton, Christopher Bell, Brady Bacan.

THE SCOOP: Bell is motivated to win the Chili Bowl this year but to get to Saturday’s A-Main he will have to navigate a stout Thursday night field. Coons has won three preliminary features in his career at the Chili Bowl and always is a threat to win in the Wilke-Pak entry.

Friday

Favorites: Dave Darland, Chad Boat, Daryn Pittman, Cory Kruseman, Tim McCreadie, Bryan Clauson, Tanner Thorson, Damion Gardner, Shane Stewart.

THE SCOOP: This is the stoutest qualifying field of the week _ a Who’s Who of Chili Bowl legends – and who comes out of this will be ready for Saturday night. In fact, it might be the best race of the week.

10 to Watch

No. 97 _Rico Abreu (Rutherford, Calif.): The reigning Chili Bowl champion won the race for long-time car-owner Keith Kunz for the first time since 2002. Rico’s 2015 VIROC attempt ended with a seventh- place finish.

No. 8J _ Jonathan Beason (Broken Arrow, Okla.): Another hometown hero who always has been fast and has a chance to break through with his first title.

No. 71 _Christopher Bell (Norman, Okla.): The young Oklahoma shoe wants to become the first racer from Soonerland to win this event since 1994. The 2014 NMDoTY joins this year’s lineup on the card punched by Keith Kunz. A master of dirt and asphalt, Bell’s best finish in the VIROC is third in 2014.

No. 63 _ Bryan Clauson (Noblesville, Ind.): First joining the VIROC in 2014 on Rusty Kunz credentials, Clauson punched his own card the same year with his first Golden Driller. Hard charger in 2014, Clauson came from 12th to second in VIROC VII.

No. 5 _ Jerry Coons Jr. (Tucson, Ariz.): He’s had plenty of success at the Chili Bowl but never has broken through on Saturday. The choice of Wilke-Pak Racing, Coons Jr. has competed in the last three VIROC events with a record of fifth, seventh, and 10th. The most consistent man in the River Spirit Expo Center with a dozen straight Saturday A-Feature appearances, his 2016 bid is the third year for the 2005 Chili Bowl owner champions.

No. 6K _ Dave Darland (Lincoln, Ind.): “The People’s Champion” will be driving for Brandon and Brad Gray for his qualifying night. But for the VIROC he’s taking his seat to the Kruseman/Potter mount reserved for Josh Lakatos on Wednesday night.

No. 71K _ Kyle Larson (Elk Grove, Calif.): The young NASCAR Sprint Cup Series star has been fast in Tulsa but unable to finish on Saturday night. Winner of the 2014 VIROC, Larson will look to get the job done again in his fifth consecutive appearance. Larson’s 2015 showing resulted in a fifth-place finish.

No. 21 _ Daryn Pittman (Owosso, Okla.): The former World of Outlaws champ starts slow in this event but always is a factor on Saturday. Nothing would make him happier than to win in front of the hometown crowd.

No. 1 _ Sammy Swindell (Germantown, Tenn.): The five-time champion always is a threat to win here. If Sammy gets through his qualifying night without any issues he could prevail again on Saturday. Making the trip to the Tulsa Expo Raceway for the 26th time, Swindell comes in chasing Golden Driller No. 6.

No. 1ST _ JJ Yeley (Phoenix, Ariz.): Yeley is a showstopper and fan-favorite but has not seen Victory Lane either on a preliminary night or Saturday. If he does win, he’ll certainly put on a show racing under the banner of 1996 owner champion Jay McKinnie. Yeley looks to make up for a DNF in the 2014 VIROC.

LUCAS OIL CHILI BOWL NATIONALS CHAMPIONS

Year _ Driver (Owner)

2015 _ Rico Abreu (Keith Kunz/Curb-Agajanian)

2014 _ Bryan Clauson (Joe Dooling/Curb Records)

2013 _ Kevin Swindell (Swindell Motorsports/Curb Records)

2012 _ Kevin Swindell (Swindell Motorsports/Curb Records)

2011 _ Kevin Swindell (Swindell Motorsports/Curb Records)

2010 _ Kevin Swindell (Swindell Motorsports/Curb Records)

2009 _ Sammy Swindell (Swindell Motorsports/Curb Records)

2008 _ Damion Gardner (Jason Leffler)

2007 _ Tony Stewart (Tony Stewart Motorsports)

2006 _ Tim McCreadie (Steve Smith)

2005 _ Tracy Hines (Wilke-Pak)

2004 _ Cory Kruseman (Andy Bondio)

2003 _ Dan Boorse (Dan Boorse)

2002 _ Tony Stewart (Keith Kunz)

2001 _ Jay Drake (Keith Kunz)

2000 _ Cory Kruseman (Andy Bondio)

1999 _ Dan Boorse (Dan Boorse)

1998 _ Sammy Swindell (Pete Willoughby)

1997 _ Billy Boat (John Lawson)

1996 _ Sammy Swindell (Rusty Kunz/Jay McKinnie)

1995 _ Donnie Beechler (Zarounian Motorsports)

1994_ Andy Hillenburg (Keith Kuntz/Rusty Kunz)

1993 _ Dave Blaney (Ralph Potter)

1992 _ Sammy Swindell (Dave Ellis)

1991 _ Lealand McSpadden (Andy Bondio)

1990 _ John Heydenreich (Tony Finley)

1989 _ Sammy Swindell (Jack Runyon)

1988 _ Scott Hatton (Jerry Hatton)

1987 _ Rich Vogler (Bob Lowe)

| , RacinToday.com Tuesday, January 12 2016
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