By Dean Reynolds
KNOXVILLE, IA – The 33rd annual 360 Nationals at the Knoxville Raceway could very well be one of those “hey, I was there” events, as it’s talked about by people who were on the grounds of the Marion County Fairgrounds and witnessed the 30-lap event for years to come.
Many will talk about the green-white-checker battle waged by Aaron Reutzel and Brian Brown, where Brown cut under coming out of turn four to win by .02 seconds, his second win in the prestigious event.
But… there was indeed “another story” of the what will be a historic event and might have been just about as popular as the photo finish.
Helena, California’s Rico Abreu came into the 360 Nats finale scheduled to start seventh in the 18-lap B-Main after a tough preliminary night. It was a doable task to get into the actual Nationals, but not without a lot of effort and speed.
As the B-Main unfolded and with only the aid of one yellow, Abreu went to work, and work became a bit tougher as he fell back to tenth in the early stages. Then his right rear tire fired up, got heat, and the charge started.
“The B-Main was tough, especially when I didn’t get going there at the start. I fell back there some, and then I had to pass some cars,” Rico said with a smile reflecting back.
With cars all over the wide half-mile in the closing stages, Rico told of how he knew where he needed to be.
“I started looking at the scoreboard towards the end!” he simply said. “I knew Brady (Bacon) was up there, and when I passed him, I thought I was fourth or fifth. I just kept going hard, passing any car I saw, and got fourth at the finish.”
The first task was accomplished. Now the 30-lap Nationals.
“We knew we had a pretty good car with the B-Main run,” Abreu said. “This team just works so hard every race. We made a few more changes, and put it on the track.
“When you start last, you really set your mind into just passing cars. You don’t really set a goal. Yeah, you want to win, but when you start 24th, it’s just get in the car and go race.”
Race he did, and the early stages saw the familiar No. 24 up five or six spots with only a few laps in. With the race going green from the start to lap 26, passing on the big oval in a 360 car can be a daunting task. Still, Rico was passing cars; if the car was good, Rico was good.
Fast forward to the lap 26 caution for a slowing Justin Sanders. Abreu was up to eighth.
“When the yellow came out, I felt I could get another car or two and make it a good finish,” he went on, analyzing the closing stages. “It’s so hard to pass cars here, even on starts with a 360, as you need to get them wound up.”
When the green lights were back on, Abreu stayed in place, ready to make a move or two in the final laps. However, the red flag came out just as the field was ready to take the double checkered flag. A wild double-flip by Garrett Williamson and Kaleb Johnson, two drivers that were also in front of Abreu. Now the No. 24 was sixth, with the green-white-checkered next up.
Let’s let Rico talk about the final two laps.
“Man, when the green came out, it was like a parting of the sea. I went into turn three, and I was third!” he continued. “Then I saw those guys battling, and I even had a thought that if something happened, I could maybe get a win. You don’t want to see anything bad happen to them, but I was watching. Heck, I really rolled the bottom coming out of four; I think a lap more, I might have had a chance.”
Rico eventually settled for a well-earned podium finish of third, and judging by the crowd’s reaction, it was a very popular third. That sealed the conclusion that this was indeed the “other story” of the event.
He was the race’s hard charger, of course, and also the rookie of the race, as it was his first 360 Nats. To come to the 360 portion of sprint cars’ biggest week for the first time was indeed planned for 2023.
“We as a team decided that we needed to be here all week,” he said of the team’s plans. “If we want to win the 410 Nationals, we need to do as many laps and get as many notes as we can, and by doing that, we had to be here. We have such a good thing going with such a hard working team, and I feel confident in every race I run at this year. We put together a plan for the year, and it’s really worked.”