Though practice was in the books and the on-track duties were finished for the day at Daytona International Speedway, Rico Abreu was still out and about in the garage area. Pairing with his Thorsport Racing teammate Matt Crafton, the two found a spot behind Abreu’s No. 98 Safelite Auto Glass Toyota to chat racing.
The 24-year-old rookie, being a first-timer at these high banks, soaked up every inch of advice as Crafton pointed out some things underneath the rear of the rookie stripes of Abreu’s truck. That kind of one-on-one time is priceless for a young upcoming driver like Abreu. As it turns out, even in practice sessions, teamwork can pay huge dividends before race time.
“Crafton has been huge – a huge help for me,” Abreu said at Daytona. “I got to follow him there that second practice. Never got to really hook up with him and bump him or anything but just follow him.
“It’s cool to be friends with him off the track. I got to spend a little time with him here and there. We just keep building that relationship so he doesn’t race me too dirty when we race each other.”
Among the biggest selling points for racing in NASCAR is the variation of race tracks on the schedule. From plate racing, road courses, short tracks, intermediate circuits and whatever you can call Darlington, Abreu has already noticed the uniqueness from series to series – like Bristol and the Chili Bowl, for example.
“Bristol is a totally different atmosphere. And then you’re in a stock car,” he said. “The tracks are – I think Bristol is a half-mile – and the Chili Bowl is an 1/8th-mile.
“It’s the same when you first walk into the building of the stadium of Bristol and you get those butterflies in your chest. They’re both unique places and I had the pleasure of racing at both of them.”
In regards to speaking with Crafton, if this late-afternoon conversation took place at Eldora instead of Daytona, it’s safe to say Crafton would be the one listening.
Starting on the slick and muddy conditions of dirt racing in his early years, Abreu has won the legendary Chili Bowl Nationals each of the last two years as well as the 2014 USAC Midget car championship.
With a season of NASCAR action under his belt following a popular year in the K&N Pro Series East, the St. Helena, California, native scored three poles, eight top 10s and a first win at Columbus in that opening season.
“It’s definitely a big difference going from the sprint cars to the K&N cars and now to the Camping World Truck Series,” Abreu admitted. “The biggest things that I noticed was just the race lengths and then the speeds. Obviously the speeds are a little faster on a bigger track and then racing, instead for 30 laps, a 150-200-lap race.
“I like that I’m able to adapt. Hopefully I can adapt quickly and win one of these races.”
Though low on experience, Abreu gained confidence in the Truck Series following his two starts late in 2015 at Phoenix and Homestead.
“I have a lot of confidence just because I’m surrounded by a great group of guys here at Thorsport Racing,” Abreu said. “They’ve got some fast trucks and I’m really looking forward to being able to work with our teammates and use them as an advantage of working together on the track.”
Much like the conversation with two-time series champion Crafton, Abreu is fueled by support. From teammates, friends, fans or family, he is humble in putting them on the forefront of his career.
“It’s great to have that support, really,” he said. “It’s awesome to have that support behind me. I’m looking forward to building more fans and getting to all these new tracks and hopefully I can win in front of them and show them that I’m out there working hard.”
Similar to most racecar drivers, Abreu believes his biggest inspiration toward pursuing a racing career came from his family.
“Just because at the end of the day, they are the ones that supported me the most,” he said, “and have been there to push me through and have given me this opportunity. At the end of the day, they’re my biggest supporters and the ones I always go to for everything.”
On NASCAR media day at Daytona the Tuesday before the Truck Series season-opener, Abreu was given access to NASCAR’s snapchat account. Sounds like a small deal to most people, but Abreu took advantage to go around and talk to the most elite drivers in the Sprint Cup Series including a good friend in Kyle Larson – who made the same dirt-K&N-Truck transition as Abreu just a few years ago.
“It’s always cool,” he said of talking to Sprint Cup drivers. “It’s great that I got to run that NASCAR snapchat and get those pictures with those guys. People like to follow that stuff and I’m more than happy to help NASCAR out and use them as a marketing advantage for myself and help build my brand.
“Kyle [Larson] has been a huge help just because he’s done that same transition that I’m doing. I got to him for any questions as well as my teammate Matt Crafton who has a lot of experience in the Truck Series.”
Once the advice ends and the engine roar begins, the confidence to perform shows brighter than the paint scheme on the corner panels. Starting his first restrictor plate event in the 16th spot, Abreu drove a solid race before the big one sparked on lap 92, swallowing the No. 98 driver into the mess.
Despite the tough start to the season, Abreu will have 13 more events to rise to the challenge to match his goal of making the Chase for his 2016 season.
“Hopefully I can make it to that Final Four round and win a Truck race or two,” he concluded. “And just prove to these guys here at Thorsport that I’m here to race and not here just for the show.”