TULSA, Okla. — Rico Abreu continued Keith Kunz/Curb-Agajanian Motorsports’ incredible start to Lucas Oil Chili Bowl Nationals week with a runaway victory during Hard Rock Casino Qualifying Night on Wednesday.
Abreu stormed past polesitter and early leader Cole Bodine on lap eight, using an outside-inside crossover down the backstretch to surge to the point and never looking back from there.
The two-time Chili Bowl winner then pulled away over the final 17 laps, opening up a 1.794-second margin of victory over fellow Toyota stablemate David Gravel at the finish.
“I had a great car,” Abreu said. “Keith and I just kind of worked on it all night. We were a little snug, but I knew as the track developed, it would come right to us. I hit three really good laps on the bottom, and it shot me to the lead.
“When I got up top, I could see David inching on the bottom down here, and I just knew my entry speed into (turn) three wasn’t as good as I wanted it to be. At that point, I just moved down and my car just really hooked up off of (turn) four on the bottom.”
The victory was Abreu’s fourth in the last five years on the Chili Bowl’s Wednesday preliminary night.
With Abreu’s win, team owner Keith Kunz also remains perfect through the first three nights of Chili Bowl week. Kunz-prepared cars have now won six of the last seven preliminary night features overall.
Abreu noted that even with 11 cars in the KKM stable, the team’s success comes down to successful preparation and execution.
“Keith’s group of guys work hard and that’s what makes their cars so successful,” Abreu said. “They have good drivers, they have a good program with Toyota and all the sponsors that work with them to get the team to where it is. I was talking to Keith … and this isn’t just this year or last year, it’s been building over the last 15 years for Keith and he’s really building an empire.
“It’s incredible to be a part of this team. This is my eighth season competing with KKM and I’m grateful for all the success I’ve had with him.”
Bodine earned the pole by virtue of scoring the most points through heat races and qualifiers, and when the green flag waved he got the jump over Abreu, who dropped back to third on the outside and had to settle in before he began to rally back forward.
Abreu recaptured the runner-up spot on the third round from Blake Hahn, then set his sights on Bodine for the race lead. He trailed the No. 57B NOS Energy Drink entry for four laps before rim-riding the top side through turns one and two and shooting underneath Bodine going down the backstretch.
Once he got to turn three on lap eight, Abreu was clear out front and proceeded to run away from the rest of his competition, despite a pair of cautions later in the event that brought the field back to him.
A yellow on lap night for a two-car crash between Alex Bright and Sammy Swindell reset Bodine on Abreu’s back bumper, but the Rossville, Ind., native could do nothing with Abreu’s No. 97 Safelite Auto Glass Toyota following the restart.
Eventually the door was opened for Tim McCreadie to pass Bodine for second on lap 12, but it was a caution one lap after the halfway point that truly shuffled the deck and led to a surprise name punching his ticket into Saturday’s 55-lap championship main.
After Tyler Thomas flipped in turn four and collected Holley Hollan in the aftermath, the 11-lap sprint to the finish that followed featured two- and three-wide racing from third to sixth, with World of Outlaws Sprint Car Series star David Gravel ultimately making his first Chili Bowl main with a second-place finish.
Gravel is racing this week as a teammate to Brady Bacon at Frank Manafort Racing, and Wednesday night’s result means that both Manafort cars will race in Saturday’s finale.
It also marked the realization of a dream for Gravel, who is making his fifth Chili Bowl appearance and has raced with four different teams before finding his way into this year’s starting field.
“I’m excited that we’re locked into the show for Saturday,” said Gravel. “I thought the track was good. The bottom was solid. The top was good. I would catch Rico a little bit on the bottom, and then he would kind of switch it up. That would stop my momentum, but I was happy with the race track and I’m excited for Saturday.”
Bodine faded from the pole back to third, one spot out of a lock-in spot, followed by Jake Swanson, who gridded up 17th after winning one of the night’s two B-mains and raced his way to finish fourth.
Sixteen-year-old Cannon McIntosh completed the top five and became the youngest top-five finisher in history at 16 years and one month old with his run in his family-owned No. 08 entry.
McCreadie, Colby Copeland, Ryan Smith, Robert Dalby and Daniel Robinson were the balance of the top 10.
To see full results, turn to the next page.