CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Column by Race Chaser Online Managing Editor Jacob Seelman and Mid-Atlantic Correspondent Marshall Gabell — Getty Images for NASCAR photo —
One year ago, when Rico Abreu won his first-career Lucas Oil Chili Bowl Nationals A-main, he became a household name after already being a sensation among dirt track fans in the United States.
Then, the four-foot-four standout and fan favorite won in just his seventh-ever NASCAR start, taking the checkers in a K&N Pro Series East event at Columbus Motor Speedway in Ohio. That set the pavement world ablaze and got people wondering not if, but when the 23-year-old St. Helena, California native would make the leap into NASCAR’s national series ranks.
That leap happened Friday, when two-time NASCAR Camping World Truck Series championship team ThorSport Racing announced Abreu would pilot the No. 98 Toyota Tundra for the full 2016 season. Said driver promptly followed that press conference up with a second-straight Chili Bowl main event win on Saturday night.
So with untold momentum and a legion of fans behind him, the question now shifts to: Can Abreu go from NASCAR rookie to NASCAR championship contender … or even NASCAR champion?
Two of our Race Chaser Online staff members — Managing Editor Jacob Seelman and Mid-Atlantic Correspondent Marshall Gabell — disagree on the answer to that question. To get their thoughts, read on in this week’s edition of “One on One”.
JS: Okay, Marshall, so this week’s hot-button topic is Rico Abreu. He just won a second straight Chili Bowl title and he’s signed a deal to contest the full 2015 Camping World Truck Series schedule with ThorSport Racing. He’s got momentum, but can he become a championship contender at the NASCAR national level?
MG: Simply answered — no. Now, let me be clear: Abreu is a wheelman. I know that; we all know that. My issue is, there’s just so much talent — in all three national series — that I don’t see him as a champion on asphalt. Can he grow as a driver and win a few races? Absolutely. But, as for a championship, there is too deep a field and too tall a learning curve, and that will doom his hopes.
JS: I disagree. Rico’s proven over the years to be extremely adaptable, and he’s surrounded by veteran leadership at ThorSport Racing in new competition director Tracy Hines (who also made the transition from dirt midgets to the Trucks at ThorSport) and a champion teammate in Matt Crafton, who’s won two of the last three Truck titles and has already been working with Abreu to get him up to speed in these machines. When you put all those factors together, plus the fact that he finished top 10 in K&N East points and scored a win in just his seventh start in that series over the past year — I don’t see how it’s a question, personally.
Will it take him some time? Of course. No one goes from zero to Truck Series champion overnight. But the potential is there.
MG: Okay? Does that mean Abreu will be able to go out and beat his teammate Crafton? Does one NASCAR K&N Pro Series win and some mentoring make you a NASCAR national series champion?
And, now that you mentioned it, in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East last season, his HScott Motorsports with Justin Marks teammate William Byron won in his second career race, and stormed on to win the championship — in the same equipment as Abreu. Oh, and not to mention, Byron’s career started on iRacing.com in 2012, and he’s just 18 years old. Abreu, on the other hand, is 23 — and though he’s been racing since Byron was in single digits in the age column, he’s barely been in full-size cars any longer than Byron has.
I think, had Abreu pursued an asphalt career a few years ago, I might agree a championship is possible. He would have had some tenure to lean on. Right now, all he has is one win in a touring series; that isn’t enough to be a champion in the national series.
JS: I didn’t ask whether he could win a national championship in one year, since that’s what you started to imply. I just asked whether he could become a champion in due course.
Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon — they both transitioned out of midgets (with Stewart making a slight detour through the IndyCar ranks) and found quick success in NASCAR at the Cup level, but didn’t do much in what regional levels there were at the time. On the flip side, Kyle Larson — who, by the way, is the reason Rico got a chance in the big cars in the first place — went to the pavement in 2012 and found himself a championship in the K&N East ranks, but he’s done little since then at the national level. Completely opposite outcomes from the same starting point.
I’m not of the opinion at all that a K&N East title is indicative of what a driver can do at the higher levels at all. It’s a matter of timing and learning.
MG: Timing and learning? Abreu’s 23, does he have that much time to learn at this point? He is a rookie in the Truck Series at 23. Gordon transitioned to the then-Busch Grand National Series, now the XFINITY Series, at 19. Isn’t the clock ticking?
And, regardless, are we ignoring the generation that Abreu finds himself in now compared to the one Gordon and Stewart entered in the 90s? The new crop is here. Abreu, just this season, will have to compete against 2014 K&N East champion Ben Rhodes (as a teammate, no less), the aforementioned Byron, two-time Camping World Truck Series winner Tyler Reddick, and of course another teammate in two-time champion Crafton. That, right there, is a lot of talented competition.
Those drivers aren’t going away either. If he does move to the XFINITY Series, or for that matter the Sprint Cup Series, those drivers will still be there; not to mention other talented drivers like Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney and Erik Jones.
So, let’s be real, can one season on asphalt in the K&N Series — that was underwhelming at best — really compete against all that talent, even with what he’ll learn along the way? Maybe in a different era I could see Abreu as a champion. But, given the talent, on top of being a little older, it just is not adding up for me.
JS: I’ll let you rest on that point as I finish with this. Not only will he prove the naysayers wrong that say he doesn’t belong by being competitive this year, he’ll build into a championship contender by season’s end. He won’t win the title this year, but he’ll learn enough to go after it hard in 2017. If he can’t win it — or at least give it a valiant effort — by the end of next year? Then maybe I’ll admit that you might have a point.
MG: It’s not going to happen, I’m telling you. Call it a gut instinct.
JS: I had a gut instinct once, but that’s a story that has nothing to do with this discussion (laughs). Let’s just get onto Daytona. I think we’re all ready to see what Rico’s got. I think we can at least agree on one thing: Whatever happens during Rico Abreu’s 2016 season, he will certainly make it exciting.
MG: Now THAT is something that I can get behind. That and the whole, “Let’s go racing,” thing.
The opinions expressed are those of the writers and do not necessarily reflect the views of Race Chaser Online, Speed77 Radio, the Performance Motorsports Network, their sponsors or other contributors.
About the Writers
Jacob Seelman is the Managing Editor of Race Chaser Online and creator of the Motorsports Madness radio show, airing at 7 p.m. Eastern every Monday on the Performance Motorsports Network. Seelman grew up in the sport, watching his grandparents co-own the RaDiUs Motorsports NASCAR Cup Series team in the 1990s.
The 21-year-old is currently studying Broadcast Journalism at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C., and is also serving as the full-time tour announcer for both the United Sprint Car Series and the Must See Racing Sprint Car Series.
Email Jacob at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Marshall Gabell is the Mid-Atlantic Correspondent for Race Chaser Online, and in addition to his writing duties is also the public relations director for NASCAR Next member Austin Hill. Gabell is currently attending Stephen Decatur High School in Ocean City, Md., and is in his sophomore year. He is just 15 years old.
Email Marshall at: email@example.com
Follow on Twitter: @MarshallGabell
About Race Chaser Online
Race Chaser Online is a national motorsports news site dedicated to bringing news, views and interviews from around the globe to race fans of all kinds. Insiders from go-karts and Legends Cars to dirt track racing, IndyCar, Formula 1 and V8 Supercars provide exclusive unique content all week long and news is gathered from across the motorsports landscape.
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