DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Rico Abreu crashed a Dale Earnhardt Jr. interview to snap a selfie with NASCAR’s most popular driver.
His caption on Snapchat: “YES!!!!!! OMG Dale Earnhardt Jr.!!!!!”
Abreu was a bustling burst of energy this week at Daytona 500 media day, crashing Q&As, and pulling up seats to chat up writers.
On the red carpet, Abreu was a favorite — even as journalists had to take a knee to talk to him. On his director’s chair seat, Abreu charmed the media, his feet dangling with room to spare above the ground.
Yes, NASCAR’s next big thing might be all of 4-foot-4 of Truck Series driver Rico Abreu.
“I’m uniquely different and it’s great,” Abreu said.
Abreu has been great already over a brief racing career that has produced wins at marquee races at every level he’s competed. His victory burnouts are a reason to race to YouTube if you haven’t hit a Midwest dirt track lately.
But the days of 100 races a year mucking it up in the dirt appear over. Abreu has made the next step on the national level and makes his NASCAR debut driving the No. 98 Toyota of ThorSport Racing Friday night at the Trucks opener at Daytona International Speedway.
The only compensation for his size is the configuration inside the truck.
The pedals are off the dashboard bar, moving closer to Abreu, and his seat is moved up about 6 inches. The steering wheel is closer to his body because of his short arms.
“(NASCAR) has approved it all and said it was fine,” Abreu said. “It’s comfortable and safe.”
Abreu was born with achondroplasia, a genetic disorder of bone growth that results in abnormally short stature.
His success as much as his size has made him a fan favorite and a popular personality in the garage.
Chip Ganassi, a team owner in NASCAR, IndyCar and sports cars, sent his second-ever tweet to Abreu: “There’s a name you’ll be hearing more of. Stay Tuned!”
Ganassi Sprint Cup driver Kyle Larson is close friends with Abreu and they began their racing careers in California.
“It’s cool when you grow up with him and now you are doing about the same thing,” Larson said.
The 24-year-old Abreu said he didn’t experience much teasing growing up in California about his size. He played football and baseball as a kid and wrestled until middle school. When his friends kept growing during the teen years, Abreu fell in love racing custom go-karts built by his father.
“My parents always pushed me to do things,” he said. “If I knew I wasn’t capable of doing it, I accepted it. But if someone told me I wasn’t capable, I sure as hell don’t accept that.”
Abreu, who said he has been victimized by cyberbullying about his size, visits elementary schools preaching acceptance and telling kids to always chase their dreams.
“That’s the best feeling of it all, the accomplishments,” he said.
Oh, he’s racked up accomplishments.
Abreu is the 2014 USAC Midget national champion and a two-time defending Chili Bowl champion. He earned his first career stock car victory last July, racing to the win at Columbus Motor Speedway in Ohio.
He said fans often stop him before and after races to say what an inspiration he is.
Abreu will ditch the dirt for asphalt Friday night in a field that includes two-time series champion Matt Crafton.
Trucks are only a start for the pint-sized power who wants to reach new heights in motorsports.
“Growing up, I never knew any of this was possible,” Abreu said. “It’s great to have the confidence to know that all of this can happen. I’d like to run the Indy 500. I’d like to run the Daytona 500. I’d like to run the Rolex 24 Hours.”