Saturday, Jan. 16, 2016 | 10:37 p.m.
TULSA, OKLA. —
Rico Abreu celebrated one of the biggest victories of his career a year ago at the prestigious Chili Bowl, shortly before making one of the biggest moves of his career.
The 4-foot-4 Abreu, one of the fastest-rising personalities in auto racing, celebrated another major career move by winning his second straight Chili Bowl on Saturday night — passing Bryan Clauson with 10 laps remaining.
Abreu's victory came much to the delight of the overflow crowd inside the Tulsa Expo Raceway, where fans chanted his name a year ago and cheered him on during his final laps on Saturday.
The 23-year-old Californian and former USAC Midget car champion followed last year's victory by moving on to the K&N East Series, where he finished fifth and won his first career stock car race at Columbus Motor Speedway in July.
This time around, Abreu's big career move — a full-time step up to NASCAR's Truck Series — was announced the day before his Chili Bowl victory.
Regardless of the timing, there's no denying the springboard the Chili Bowl has served for Abreu's career.
"It's just another race on my schedule, but it's the biggest one," Abreu said. "Anyone who wins this race has a lot of momentum going into their season, because it's the first race of the year. It's great."
After leading for much of the race, Clauson — the 2014 winner — finished second for the second straight year. Zach Daum was third.
Kyle Larson was fifth, and fellow NASCAR drivers Kasey Kahne 13th and Ricky Stenhouse 16th.
Nearly 350 drivers began fighting their way through the grueling qualifying races on Tuesday, with 24 remaining for the 55-lap final late on Saturday night.
The field included a mixture of top-level racers and lesser-known hopefuls — from locally and beyond — all hoping to secure victory in one of the country's most competitive and prestigious Midget car races on the quarter-mile dirt track of the Tulsa Expo Center.
Past winners of the event, which has grown from struggling to garner local attention to nationally recognized cultural happening, include three-time NASCAR champion Tony Stewart — winner in 2002 and 2007 — and the father/son duo of Sammy and Kevin Swindell, who have combined for nine Chili Bowl wins.
Clauson moved into the lead on the ninth lap on Saturday, taking advantage of Christopher Bell's spin out after he ran up on a slower car. He appeared well on his way to the win — remaining far ahead of the pack — until the race was stopped on the 41st lap because a fan fell from the stands.
Police Cpl. Dan Ward said the fan's injury to his leg was "non-life threatening," but the 20-minute delay in the race gave Abreu and others time to regroup.
Four laps following the restart, Abreu — who started on the second row — cut to the inside of Clauson and took the lead for good.
"I felt like I had a winning car, and I had one slip away," Clauson said while going on to praise Abreu's ability.
Abreu, who uses blocks in the accelerator area of his race cars, is now only the second driver to win back-to-back titles at the Chili Bowl — joining Kevin Swindell, who four straight from 2010-13. Abreu finished 21st in his first Chili Bowl finals in 2012, 11th a year later and has now topped the ever-growing field for the second straight year.
"This race is so hard to win, and it's my favorite race of the year," Abreu said. "It's the one I look forward to coming to, especially after winning last year. This place has a special place in my heart."