Heading into the 2016 season, Camping World Truck Series rookie, Rico Abreu had little to no expectations in his opening campaign in NASCAR’s third-tier division.
The California native made his name on dirt prior to coming to NASCAR in 2015, when he competed in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East. Over the course of the 14-race season, he earned eight top 10s and won his first race at Columbus.
Since making the move to the Truck Series, the 24-year-old has struggled compared to fellow rookies, William Byron, Christopher Bell and Cole Custer, all whom have top five finishes. He’s competing against teenagers that have been in the NASCAR system longer than he has. However, Abreu didn’t start racing until he was 16 years old.
Moving to ThorSport Racing in 2016, Abreu has seen some of the lows of the sport.
In six races this season, Abreu has a best finish of 10th at the shortest track on the circuit, Martinsville. In a series that drivers establish themselves, hopeful of making it to the XFINITY Series and then the Sprint Cup Series, the rookie believes he has a lot to learn.
“I think we are getting better as a team and improving when we show up to the racetracks and the initial firing off in those first few laps of practice,” Abreu told Speedway Digest of what he needs to improve on most. “That was my biggest thing this year is not firing off fast enough and then being behind all weekend.”
Abreu has been involved in three crashes this year, where it resulted in a finish of 22nd or worse in each of those races.
At Daytona, he was running in the midst of the pack, getting caught up in a crash involving 18 trucks, more than half of the 32-truck field. In the fourth race at Kansas Speedway, the No. 98 machine spun on the third lap. And most recently at Dover, he made contact with ThorSport Racing teammate Ben Rhodes, causing both to hit the wall.
In the last event at Charlotte, the rookie driver was running in third when he got into the wall, falling to seventh late in the race. On the final pit stop, he received a penalty for pitting outside the box, finishing 20th.
Typically, rookies are vulnerable out on the track, thus why they have a yellow stripe across their bumper. However, there are some instances when they are in the wrong place at the wrong time.
With an average starting spot of 19.5 and average finishing position of 19th, there are details that the team needs to work on. In the past, drivers at ThorSport Racing have done a good job at finishing the deal winning 20 races over the past five seasons with two of its drivers in the top five in points, four times including back-to-back championships in 2013 and 2014.
The former driver of the No. 98 truck, Johnny Sauter, won four races in three seasons with virtually the same team. The team is capable of winning, but Abreu needs to give better feedback and gain chemistry with crew chief Doug George.
Finishing races and keeping the car out of the fence is at the top of the list in one of the most competitive racing series that Abreu has ever competed in.
“I come from racing 30 laps in the World of Outlaw Sprint Car Series, which I feel is the hardest open-wheel series in the country,” Abreu said. “I think now it’s great to go back and forth in both series. The Truck Series is very stout this season with all of the young rookies and the up and comers.”
Being successful on dirt was one of the reasons why Mike Curb wanted Abreu on his team. He has a long friendship with team owner’s Duke and Rhonda Thorson even forming a partnership on the track.
Abreu is well respected off the pavement, winning the last two Chili Bowls. Held in Tulsa, OK, the Chili Bowl is the biggest dirt race in the world, where over 300 drivers try attempt to make the main event each January.
Tracy Hines, competition director at ThorSport Racing, is a former sprint car driver and was intrigued by Abreu’s status in NASCAR, thus why the team took a chance on a driver who has very little experience on asphalt.
Abreu often picks the brain of 2014 Truck Series champion and teammate Matt Crafton during a race weekend. While leading the point standings and recording back-to-back victories at Dover and Charlotte, Crafton is arguably one of the best drivers to have as a teammate throughout the garage.
“My teammates have been doing a great job supporting me and helping me with this transition,” Abreu said with a smile. “Matt [Crafton] has been the biggest influence because of the experience he has. I go to him for a lot of questions and he gives me great feedback.”
Following the last race at Charlotte, Abreu went to Victory Lane to hug Crafton following his triumph, hoping that one day that will be him in that position.
The chemistry within the organization is said to be near an all-time high. In 2016, the team has four teams running all 23 races. Competing alongside Abreu and Crafton are Rhodes and Cameron Haley. Three of the drivers have three years of experience or less, while the No. 88 team has been in tact since 2005, the longest current tenure in the Truck Series.
“Everyone works really well,” Abreu said of his teammates. “I think it’s an open notebook in debriefs. We are in the same shop so you can only hide so much. Everyone communicates very well and all of our trucks are mainly the same.”
With Abreu’s self-described tough luck to start his rookie campaign, the team is in a bad situation, forcing them to make it up time in the pits. It puts even more pressure on top of the enormous amount that pit crews face to begin with.
“It’s such a big learning curve coming from Sprint car racing to now a 3,400 lb stock car,” he elaborated. “It’s a big jump for me, but I’m getting the hang of it and I’ve got 17 races left to try and win one.”
In previous seasons, there have been drivers such as Abreu that go from racing in their respective series, take a shot at NASCAR and go back to their home division. Abreu admitted that he plans on being in NASCAR for the long haul and one day become a Sprint Cup driver.
Juan Pablo Montoya, Marcos Ambrose and many more have all tried, ultimately going back to their prior series. Abreu does not want to be the next to fall short of his goals within NASCAR.
“I just want to win,” Abreu said. “I’m so focused on racing the racetrack.”
Moving forward in the season, Abreu is excited about racing the 1.5-mile racetracks and any track that has multiple grooves of racing. With his dirt experience, he’s not afraid to rim-ride the wall in other words the cushion of the track, like one of his close friends, Kyle Larson.
On the 1.5-mile racetracks, Abreu looks like Larson on the track. All drivers try to get everything out of their car or truck, but sometimes push the envelope a little too much. There have been multiple instances where getting a little too high has cost the team, damaging the racecar, much like Charlotte.
“I think we are getting better and we are going to some good tracks in the next couple months and a few of them that I have raced on before,” Abreu mentioned. “I’m looking forward to it.”
Abreu believes that better preparing himself for events will be beneficial in the immediate future. He is at the point of his career where he needs to advance up the ladder of NASCAR, starting so late into his career.
Finishing all of the races is one of his main goals for the remainder of 2016. Gaining the on-track experience at this level could get to the point of whether he is successful in NASCAR.