Pete Willoughby never had a doubt that Rico Abreu would find success in NASCAR. In his mind, it was just a matter of when and where that first victory would occur.
His prognostication came true on Saturday when Abreu outdueled Grant Quinlan to win the NAPA 150 at Columbus Motor Speedway in the K&N Pro Series East.
Willoughby is the co-owner of Keith Kunz Motorsports, the open-wheel and USAC team that fields Sprints and Midgets for Abreu when he’s not wheeling a Stock Car across the East Coast. Due to that association, Willoughby has seen more of Abreu than anyone else in the sport and has even attended several of his NASCAR starts.
You could say that Kunz and Willoughby have a sharp eye for talent, having also prepared cars for Kyle Larson, Christopher Bell and Tanner Thorson over recent seasons.
Larson has long since departed for NASCAR, winning the Sprint Cup Rookie of the Year last season for Chip Ganassi Racing. Bell appears destined to follow in his footsteps, winning Super Late Model races for Kyle Busch Motorsports while also participating in a handful of Camping World Truck Series events for the Toyota satellite team.
Willoughby believes in the talent of each of his drivers and wouldn’t have supported them if he didn’t. The candid car owner doesn’t think Abreu has the same raw talent as Larson or Bell, but feels as though he has something else that could propel him to the highest levels — an abundance of heart and determination.
“Kyle and Bell are just pure talents,” Willoughby told Popular Speed. “Rico has had success due to his heart. It takes him longer to learn. He has determination and heart. He has talent too because you don’t win in the World of Outlaws without it but his spirit will take him a long way.”
Given his limited experience in Stock Cars, Willoughby said Abreu couldn’t be with a better team than HScott Motorsports with Justin Marks, due to the talented collection of engineers and former drivers at their stable. HScott has the best cars on the tour and crew chief Mardy Lindley is one of the most respected minds in short track racing.
“He’s only going to get better as long as he stays plugged in with those guys,” Willoughby said of his defending Chili Bowl Nationals champion. “Rico has a driving style that just doesn’t lend itself to Late Models. He’s a gasser and he’s amazing on dirt.
“It takes a bit for him to adapt once a track goes slick and it will be the same for his asphalt stuff — but he will figure it out.”
On Saturday night, after winning from the pole, Abreu made his open-wheel car owner look like prophet.
K&N EAST COLUMBUS: Recap and Results
Grant Quinlan Impresses in his K&N East Debut with Mark Rette Racing
While he came up just short in his efforts to win in his first Pro Series East start on Saturday night at Columbus, Grant Quinlan turned in a performance that has both fans and industry observers talking.
It wasn’t a trip to Victory Lane but there is something to be said about finishing second to Rico Abreu in the race of the year for the East Coast development series. Quinlan was the leader on the final restart with 45 laps to go but just got beat by the defending Chili Bowl Nationals champion.
Abreu has struggled on restarts all year and had also gotten beat on the reset by Quinlan several times on Saturday night.
However, Abreu got the job done when it mattered most on the restart and completed the pass with 44 laps to go and pulled away to win for the first time in a Stock Car. Quinlan knows he should probably feel disappointed but says he left satisfied with a runner-up and the knowledge that he can compete with the best prospects NASCAR has to offer.
“I’m always happy with second,” Quinlan said after exchanging the lead eight times with Abreu during the course of the event. “We don’t come here to finish second but I’m happy to have the opportunity to even be in the picture late in the race. Rico just got us on that last restart.”
The second-place finish is even more rewarding considering this was also the first race back in the Pro Series East for Rette Jones Racing — an ARCA program that just expanded to K&N with Quinlan behind the wheel. The duo of Quinlan and Jones also plan to attempt K&N races at Richmond, Phoenix and Dover later this season.
Quinlan, a 16-year-old Canadian, has Super Late Model victories in the CRA Super Series but said these perimeter rail Pro Cars drove nothing like a straight rail Late Model, making his success on Saturday all the more impressive.
“They are a lot different,” Quinlan said. “The weight distribution is different — they are heavier. Suspension is different. It has more power, which is probably the biggest thing.”
Quinlan didn’t win but Saturday was the best case scenario for the young prospect given the history he made with Abreu after their duel in Columbus.
Championship Shake-Up in Columbus
It wasn’t exactly a banner showing for the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East championship contenders on Saturday night at Columbus Motor Speedway.
William Byron entered the NAPA 150 with a 23 point lead over Kyle Benjamin but left with only a 20 point advantage over Austin Hill following his involvement in an early crash with several other contenders.
Byron qualified 13th and got caught up in an incident with Benjamin and Nick Drake early in the event. He ultimately finished 14th, while Benjamin finished 16th to limit the championship damage for the two-race winner this season.
Hill, the winner of the season-opener at New Smyrna, finished sixth to edge back into the championship hunt. It wasn’t a spectacular showing by any means but on a day where other contenders faltered, Hill was more than gracious to have a clean race car and a hard-fought top-10.
The updated championship standings can be found below.
- William Byron Ldr.
- Austin Hill -20
- Kyle Benjamin -25
- Scott Heckert -28
- Dalton Sargeant -30
- Gray Gaulding -38
- Nick Drake -43
- Ronnie Bassett Jr. -44
- Rico Abreu -45
- Kaz Grala -47
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