TULSA, Okla. (AP) — Rico Abreu doesn't have much free time on his hands these days to contemplate his rapid ascent as one of the most popular drivers in the country.
The 2014 USAC Midget champion is too busy working his way up the NASCAR ranks to stop and fully appreciate his continued success — the latest coming in the form of his full-time move to the Truck Series this season.
Abreu announced his move on Friday, a day before defending his dirt-track Chili Bowl victory at one of the most prestigious midget car events.
It's the second major move in the last two years for the 23-year-old Californian, who jumped from midget cars to the NASCAR K&N East Series following his Chili Bowl win a year ago. He'll drive for ThorSport on the Truck Series, working with crew chief Doug George.
"It's been a big change, especially being able to run all these different cars," Abreu said. "... It's a big change in different types of cars that I got to run, and I got to win in every car I ran last year, so it's cool."
Abreu was fifth in the K&N standings last year, earning his first career stock car win at Columbus Motor Speedway in July.
He made his Truck Series debut in November in Phoenix and finished 28th and 13th in two late-season races.
Standing 4-foot-4 and using blocks in the accelerator area of his race cars, Abreu has earned a loyal following in sprint car racing — with the Chili Bowl crowd chanting his name after he took the checkered flag a year ago.
He said fans often stop him before and after races to say what an inspiration he is.
"I just want to win races and just really want people to follow their dreams, people that don't have that opportunity to push themselves and get that opportunity," Abreu said. "There's never been a time in my life I didn't believe in myself."
Abreu has already qualified for Saturday night's final, and he believes he can "definitely" complete a repeat victory before moving on to the Truck Series.
He also said he plans to continue racing some sprint and midget cars this season while taking part in the Truck Series, and hopes "to win in them all again."
"I've been really looking forward to this moment," Abreu said. "... I've got some high goals for 2016."
Matthew LaNeve, vice president for ThorSport, said competition director and driver Tracy Hines will help with Abreu's transition from dirt to asphalt racing. LaNeve also said Abreu will compete for the Rookie of the Year title over the 23-race season.
Abreu is one of nine drivers who already have qualified for the Chili Bowl finals at the Tulsa Expo Raceway, with the 24-car final taking place over 55 laps on the quarter-mile dirt track.
The others who have qualified are Alex Bright, Joey Saldana, Zach Daum, Tyler Thomas, Thomas Meseraull, Christopher Bell, Jerry Coons Jr. and Shane Cottle.