TULSA, Okla. – With the sold-out crowd chanting his name, Rico Abreu leaped from his winning car and into the arms of his car owner.
Abreu won the Chili Bowl on Saturday night, using a bold pass of defending winner Bryan Clauson with 28 laps remaining to take one of the country's most prestigious Midget races.
It was the first Chili Bowl victory for Abreu, the reigning USAC Midget champion. It was also the first Chili Bowl win for manufacturer Toyota and first since 2002 for team owner Keith Kunz.
The 22-year-old Californian driver is just 4-foot-4 and weighs less than 100 pounds. He uses foot blocks in the accelerator area of his race cars. The win brought new attention to a driver who has made his name racing on the grassroots level.
"I just tried to stay as patient as I could," Abreu said. "I don't know how hard he was racing, but when the time was right I pulled the trigger and gave him a slide job and was waiting for him to slide me back. We dragged raced each other into three and I came out with the lead.
"This is pretty damn cool. Not too many people get to win the Chili Bowl. That's a short list of names. It's an unbelievable event."
Chip Ganassi, a team owner in NASCAR, IndyCar and sports cars, sent his second-ever tweet to Abreu: "There's a name you'll be hearing more of. Stay Tuned!"
Ganassi driver Kyle Larson, NASCAR's reigning Sprint Cup rookie of the year, was also in the race and was teammates with Abreu for Keith Kunz Motorsports. Abreu and Larson are close friends and began their racing careers in California.
Larson tweeted he "got pretty emotional when I heard the fans chanting his name. Love that guy!"
Abreu said after the race he's had some talks about racing Late Models and the NASCAR K&N East Series, and said "if I got a chance to drive stock cars, I would."
Abreu took the win in a field of 326 entries that included NASCAR drivers Larson, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and J.J. Yeley, as well as Sammy Swindell and Kevin Swindell, a father-son tandem that has nine combined Chili Bowl victories.
Although the father and son made contact with each other earlier in the race, Kevin Swindell went on to finish second. His father finished fifth and had words after the race with Larson, who was seventh after spinning twice during the event.
Damion Gardner was third and followed by Tanner Thorson. Yeley was 17th in the 24-driver main event. Defending race winner Clauson was 10th.
Stenhouse did not advance out of the B-feature into the A-main.
Kunz's last win as a team owner in the Chili Bowl was in 2002, when he fielded the winning car for Tony Stewart.
Stewart, a two-time Chili Bowl winner, has not competed in the event since 2012. But he spent the entire week in Tulsa, where he was part of the track preparation crew. The three-time NASCAR champion worked more than 12-hours a day maintaining the track surface and fans were able to watch Stewart on a tractor smoothing out the dirt surface at Tulsa Expo Raceway.