TULSA, Okla. — For 25 laps on Wednesday night at Tulsa Expo Raceway, a huge crowd of fans held their collective breath as they waited for a slip from either Rico Abreu or Tyler Thomas at the head of the field.
Not only did that slip never happen, the battle that ensued went down as one of the best on a Lucas Oil Chili Bowl Nationals preliminary night, with Abreu ultimately coming out on top and giving Keith Kunz his second-straight win to open the 32nd running of the crown jewel event.
In a race that featured five official lead changes at the start-finish line and more than a dozen in total, Abreu charged from third after falling back from the outside pole on the initial start, first taking the lead on lap nine of the 25-lap feature and surviving a torrid duel with Thomas in the closing stages.
Ultimately, Abreu held off Thomas on a green-white-checkered finish to notch his third-career preliminary night victory at the Chili Bowl and cement his place in Saturday’s championship feature.
A huge grin and explosion of emotion during his victory lane interview belied just how much fun Abreu had battling with Thomas throughout the feature, with the two trading sliders and switching lines nearly every lap.
“That’s how racing’s supposed to be, right there,” Abreu exclaimed. “That was some intense s–t!”
“These are the toughest nights of the week and I’m happy to get it done. We had a solid night,” he said. “We raced well in our heat race, qualifier and the A-Feature. This is the way we wanted to start off the week.”
Abreu’s victory marked a triumphant return after he was forced out of a race car for 15 and a half weeks following a rough crash at Ohio’s Eldora Speedway last fall.
Thomas started on the pole and paced the first four circuits, but by the start of lap five he was stuck in the middle of three-wide as Abreu attacked from the bottom, while Kevin Thomas Jr. laid claim to the extreme high groove of the quarter-mile bullring.
Kevin Thomas edged ahead to lead the fifth round, but Tyler Thomas stuck to his guns in the middle of the track and slid the Heffner Racing No. 27 into turn one to reclaim command on the sixth circuit.
That pass was crucial, as a caution moments later for Parker Price-Miller’s flat right-rear tire slowed the pace and gave T. Thomas a clear view out his mud-screen for the ensuing restart.
That was when Abreu pounced, moving into the runner-up spot and quickly giving chase to Tyler Thomas out front. He stalked the No. 91t for another full lap before making his move on lap nine, edging out in front at the start-finish line before fully assuming command on the 10th rotation.
But Tyler Thomas was far from done, resuming command out front on lap 12 before a spinning David Prickett in turn one drew the yellow two laps later, putting the order back to the 13th round and setting Abreu up for one more charge.
The green flag flew with 12 to go and Abreu blasted to the top side, finally getting enough momentum to pass T. Thomas for good on lap 15, though he wasn’t able to pull away thanks to a sequence of late-race incidents back in the pack.