Abreu aiming for 3rd straight Chili Bowl win with local team

The 30th annual Lucas Oil Chili Bowl Nationals presented by General Tire set the mark at 349 entries, but the 31st edition just smashed that record as 358 entries have been turned in for the annual “Mecca of Midgets.”

With the 31st annual Lucas Oil Chili Bowl Nationals presented by General Tire slated for Jan. 10-14 inside the River Spirit Expo Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma, there is still time to further that record as entries can be accepted all the way up until the final preliminary night on Jan. 13.

The 2017 field is shaping up to have several NASCAR contenders on hand, including the reigning Chili Bowl champion, Rico Abreu, who competed full-time in the Camping World Truck Series in 2016.

Abreu has won the last two Golden Drillers — the trophy awarded to the last driver standing after five furious days of racing. This month, Abreu returns to defend his title with Keith Kunz and Pete Willoughby, the Columbus-based team owner who also supported Abreu’s successful run to the 2014 USAC Midget Championship.

Still, Abreu said he believes this will be the most difficult Chili Bowl Nationals to date — and not just due to the depth of the field which includes the top names in midget and sprint-car racing. Abreu, 24, is mourning the loss of his friend and competitor Bryan Clauson. In August, Clauson died from injuries sustained during the Belleville (Kan.) Nationals midget race.

“It’s going to be a lot different,” Abreu told Motorsport.com. “Bryan created the atmosphere in that building (Tulsa Expo). He set the tone for the whole week. And he came close to winning this race so many times. He was the best guy there the first year I won. Then last year, he had the best car in the building. If you watch the final five laps, he was closing in every lap. If there had been another five laps, he would have beat me.

“But everyone is going to have to accept it. Everyone is going to have to move on. It’s going to be tough, but it’s my job as a race car driver to cancel all that out when I start racing. Racing is still a dangerous sport. Things happen. But we don’t know any better, to be honest.” Abreu also misses competing against four-time Chili Bowl winner Kevin Swindell, who swept the event from 2010 to 2013. No driver had won consecutive A-Mains prior to Swindell’s feat. However, the second-generation racer broke the L-1 and T-7 vertebrae during the 2015 Knoxville Nationals. While Swindell’s role has evolved into the ownership side of racing, Abreu feels the competition has thinned at the top.

“There are 15 to 20 guys that take it to another level, but 10 elite cars in the building that have a shot at that race,” Abreu said. “This is going to be the hardest year to win. There’s a lot of guys that step it up for this one race. Christopher Bell is going to be good again. So is Kyle Larson, but he always seems to have bad luck that takes him out of it. Brady Bacon has also gotten really good.

“I think I have the best chance, given my past results. But I’m not putting a whole lot of pressure on myself.”

Following the Chili Bowl, Abreu will jet off to Archerfield Speedway in Brisbane, Queensland, Australia for six midget races. He’ll compete with the same car he won with in the 2016 Chili Bowl. He also expects to run 10 additional races for Kunz in 2017.

As for a return to the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, Abreu said he’s still in negotiations with ThorSport Racing. Last year, in his rookie season behind the wheel of the No. 98 truck, Abreu posted top-five finishes at both Eldora Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway. He accumulated five top 10s in 23 starts.

Among the other drivers with NASCAR experience already lined up: Xfinity Series regular, J.J. Yeley; 2016 ARCA champion and K&N Pro Series West competitor, Chase Briscoe; Xfinity Series regular, Justin Allgaier; Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series drivers Kyle Larson and Ricky Stenhouse Jr.; and Christopher Bell, who competed full time in the Truck series in 2016 and advanced to the Championship 4.

Among the latest round of entries includes some of spring-car racing’s royalty like Wooster, Ohio’s Jac Haudenschild. The three time A-Feature starter is known for his over the top, win or wear it driving style and is scheduled to pilot the JFM No. 73x again in 2017. Jac is also among the few Father/Son combination in this year’s Chili Bowl as Sheldon Haudenschild will wheel a ride for Mike Larson/Keith Kunz Motorsports.

While the list of Chili Bowl veterans continues to read like a Hall of Fame induction, the list of Rookies has grown at a rapid pace as well as 71 drivers will take their first swing at mastering the Tulsa Expo Raceway. Added recently was Georgia’s Jonathan Davenport. A product of the world of Late Models, Davenport is a true midget rookie, though that doesn’t seem to be stopping the 2015 Lucas Oil Late Model Champion. In 2016, Davenport racked up 10 wins with the Lucas Oil backed series, including the $40,000 to win Silver Dollar Nationals at I-80 Speedway in Greenwood, Neb.

Davenport will be racing for Zach Daum who, along with racing himself, is again providing the Tony Elliott Memorial car that was awarded to David Gravel for the 2017 edition. Another dirt late model veteran competing will be former winner Tim McCreadie of Watertown, New York. McCreadie the winner of the event in 2006 is now a regular on the Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series where he finished third in the championship points standings in 2016.