Chili Bowl winner Abreu making major inroads in NASCAR

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Several hours after winning the biggest race of his life, Rico Abreu realized he’d arrived at the same time his plane did in Chicago.

“When we landed, they announced on the plane that the Chili Bowl Nationals winner is on this flight,” Abreu said Tuesday morning during a conference call with the news media. “They actually said, ‘Rich Abreu’ and then they said, ‘Rico,’ and everyone started laughing.”

Abreu certainly could take it in stride, having emerged over the last 72 hours as the newest sensation in auto racing.

After Abreu wowed an audience filled with NASCAR luminaries Saturday night in becoming the 18th winner of the prestigious Chili Bowl Nationals in Tulsa, Okla., the whirlwind continued Tuesday with the announcement that he will run the full K&N Pro Series East Series this season with HScott Motorsports.

He hadn’t sat in a stock car until piloting a Late Model in a parking lot Monday, and he will mark his debut in a Super Late Model race Saturday at New Smyrna (Fla.) Speedway before the K&N Pro Series season opener Feb. 15 at the same track (NBC Sports will broadcast the event).

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Though he will be new to NASCAR, Abreu ingratiated himself with several movers and shakers last week in Tulsa.

Among the many well-wishers were Tony Stewart, Danica Patrick, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Roger Penske.

“I never thought this day would come,” Abreu, 22, said. “It’s one of the biggest wins in my career. One I’ll never forget.”

The Rutherford, Calif., native’s story is a memorable one. Standing 4-foot-4 and weighing 95 pounds, Abreu uses foot blocks to reach the accelerator when he runs in sprint and midget series cars.

He has worked closely with NASCAR to ensure similar modifications would be allowed in the car, using spacers behind the seat to position him closer to the steering wheel and pedals.

“All modifications are really simple, nothing way off radar, and it’s really safe,” he said. “My whole goal was going to New Smyrna and getting laps and making sure I’m comfortable in the race car. You have to be 100 percent in these race cars, and you can’t lose concentration about being uncomfortable. That’s my biggest thing this weekend is being in the comfort zone, making sure everything is right and getting as many laps as I can.

“The pedals are mounted right underneath the dashboard, and it’s moved closer to reach electronics. You look at the cockpit, and it’s hard to tell the difference. The only difference is sitting a lot closer, and the pedals are closer. The adjustments aren’t that bad. NASCAR came and said everything looks safe.”

Though the timing of Tuesday’s news was fortuitous, the wheels have been in motion for a few months to bring Abreu to NASCAR after he notched 26 victories across sprint and USAC midget races last year and also won a national championship.

He is following in the footsteps of Chip Ganassi Racing driver and fellow California native Kyle Larson, who also is one of Abreu’s closest friends. It was Larson, who introduced Abreu to Stewart (who already has promised to help shuttle Abreu between Dover, Del., and Mechanicsburg, Pa., in late May so he can race K&N and sprint cars on the same weekend).

“I’ve known Kyle the last six years, and I consider him a brother,” Aberu said. “His parents could be my mom and dad with how close I am to his family and him. Kyle is the one I look up to and go to more than anything because of the close friendship and relationship together. The people I’ve met through Kyle with Tony and Kasey. There’s so many drivers I can go to for support and that will support me. My confidence is so high, and I’m really looking forward to it. I don’t think I’m going to have too many problems to deal with it.”

Besides the 14 K&N races, Abreu plans to fill the rest of his schedule with dirt-track events. “I think I’m more than capable of running 110 to 120” total races, he said, noting that Larson ran 130 times while winning the K&N East title in 2012.

Abreu is a relative newcomer to racing, having begun his career only a few years ago.

“When I grew up, I played sports, wrestled in middle school, then all my friends and classmates outgrew me, and I was limited to what I could do,” he said. “I became a big race fan. I didn’t even think I could race until I did it for the first time let alone be competitive so quickly in my career. It’s just so cool to see that people really believe in you and like to see you achieve.

“A lot of people believe in me, and it gives me a lot of confidence and humbled me. I’m glad people can see who I am. They don’t judge me for what I look like or why I’m doing it. I’m doing it because I’m a racer and love the sport.”

Miguel Oliveira wins MotoGP Thai Grand Prix, Bagnaia closes to two points in championship

MotoGP Thai Grand Prix
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Miguel Oliveira mastered mixed conditions on the Chang International Circuit in Buriram, Thailand to win the MotoGP Thai Grand Prix. Oliveira showed the adaptability as he navigated a race that began in wet conditions and turned dry over the course of the race. Oliveira won the Indonesian GP in similar conditions.

“It was a long race, but I can’t complain,” Oliveira said on CNBC. “Every time we get to ride in the wet, I’m always super-fast. When it started raining, I had flashbacks of Indonesia. I tried to keep my feet on the ground, make a good start and not make mistakes and carry the bike to the end.”

All eyes were on the championship, however. Francesco Bagnaia got a great start to slot into second in Turn 1.

Meanwhile Fabio Quartararo had a disastrous first lap. He lost five positions in the first couple of turns and then rode over the rumble strips and fell back to 17th. At the end of the first lap, Bagnaia had the points’ lead by two. A win would have added to the gain and for a moment, it appeared Bagnaia might assume the lead.

Early leader Marco Bezzecchi was penalized for exceeding track limits, but before that happened, Jack Miller got around Bagnaia and pushed him back to third. Oliveira was not far behind.

After throwing away ninth-place and seven points on the last lap of the Japanese GP last week, Bagnaia did not allow the competition to press him into a mistake. He fell back as far as fourth before retaking the final position on the podium.

“It’s like a win for me, this podium,” Bagnaia. “My first podium in the wet and then there was a mix of conditions, so I’m very happy. I want to thank Jack Miller. Before the race, he gave me a motivational chat.”

Miller led the first half of the Thai Grand Prix before giving up the top spot to Oliveira and then held on to finish second. Coupled with his Japanese GP win, Miller is now fully in the MotoGP championship battle with a 40-point deficit, but he will need a string of results like Bagnaia has put together in recent weeks – and he needs Bagnaia to lose momentum.

Miller’s home Grand Prix in Australia is next up on the calendar in two weeks.

Bagnaia entered the race 18 points behind Quartararo after he failed to score any in Japan. The balance of power has rapidly shifted, however, with Quartararo now failing to earn points in two of the last three rounds. Bagnaia won four consecutive races and finished second in the five races leading up to Japan. His third-place finish in Thailand is now his sixth MotoGP podium in the last seven rounds.

Aleix Espargaro entered the race third in the standings with a 25-point deficit to Quartararo, but was able to close the gap by only five after getting hit with a long-lap penalty for aggressive riding when he pushed Darryn Binder off course during a pass for position. Espargaro finished 11th.

Rain mixed up the Moto2 running order in the MotoGP Thai Grand Prix as well. Starting on a wet track, Somkiat Chantra led the opening lap in his home Grand Prix. He could not hold onto it and crashed one circuit later, but still gave his countrymen a moment of pride by winning the pole.

Half points were awarded as the race went only eight laps before Tony Arbolino crossed under the checkers first with Filip Salac and Aron Canet rounding out the podium.

American Joe Roberts earned another top-10 in eighth with Sean Dylan Kelly finishing just outside the top 10 in 11th.