MOORESVILLE, N.C. (AP) Rico Abreu, coming off the biggest win of his career, will now get a shot at driving a stock car and climbing his way through NASCAR.
The reigning USAC Midget champion announced a deal Tuesday to race in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East with HScott Motorsports with Justin Marks. Abreu, who won the prestigious Chili Bowl in Oklahoma on Saturday, will run all 14 K&N events along with his usual open-wheel schedule of more than 100 races.
The 22-year-old Californian stands just 4-foot-4, weighs roughly 95 pounds and needs blocks under the pedals for him to reach them. But he's one of the most popular drivers in sprint car racing, and the Chili Bowl crowd chanted his name after he took the checkered flag.
He also received praise on Twitter from many NASCAR stars, and celebrated the win Monday night in Charlotte with good friends Kyle Larson and Kasey Kahne, who both have sprint car backgrounds.
''When I grew up I played sports and I wrestled in middle school, and all my friends and classmates kind of outgrew me,'' he said Tuesday. ''I was limited to the things I could do and I became a big race fan. Well, I didn't even think I could race until I did it for the first time. ''It's just so cool to have the feeling that people really believe in you and would like to see you achieve. Then let alone winning the Chili Bowl ... I think a lot of people believe in me. I'm glad that people can really see who I am and they don't judge me for what I look like or why I'm doing it.''
The timing of his announcement to drive stock cars just happens to coincide with his Chili Bowl victory, and Abreu hopes this shot will help him gain recognition outside the dirt track world.
''There are so many more NASCAR fans that don't follow dirt racing and don't know what I do, so I'm really looking forward to it,'' he said. ''I think the fans will react a lot differently than the average driver - average-looking driver - coming to NASCAR.''
Abreu is following a similar path to the one close friend Larson took to climb from sprint cars to NASCAR's reigning Sprint Cup rookie of the year. Larson won the K&N East title in 2012 and was full-time in NASCAR the next year.
Larson occasionally drives in NASCAR's second-tier Xfinity Series for Harry Scott Jr., who has a partnership with Chip Ganassi Racing, his Cup team. Abreu could soon find himself with opportunities at NASCAR's national level.
Abreu had Tuesday earmarked for his first stock car and pavement test, at Motor Mile in Virginia, before competing in his first stock car and pavement race on Saturday at New Smyrna in Florida. Abreu's first K&N event will be Feb. 15 at New Smyrna Speedway.
He said NASCAR has signed off on the modifications needed in a stock car to accommodate his small frame.
''NASCAR came and saw all the improvements and they're fine with it all,'' he said. ''They said everything is safe and looks safe, and I feel safe in the race car so I think that is the big first step.''
Abreu's No. 98 NASCAR K&N Pro Series East entry will be led by veteran K&N crew chief Mardy Lindley. He has five career victories in three seasons, along with the 2013 K&N title with driver Dylan Kwasniewski.
Abreu, an open wheel standout, will continue to race open wheel events and figures he will do 120 this year. He said he noticed on conflict with his K&N schedule and sprint schedule, but three-time NASCAR champion Tony Stewart said he would make sure Abreu made it to all the events.
''He said, `Don't worry about that, I'll get you there,''' Abreu said.