Four first-timers attempt to make field for Sprint Cup race at Sonoma

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Saturday’s qualifying for Sunday’s Toyota/SaveMart 350 Sprint Cup race at Sonoma Raceway should be v-e-r-y interesting.

Not only are there the usual ringers like Boris Said running on the 1.99-mile road course, four young drivers will be hoping to make their Sprint Cup Series debut.

Of course, that’s going to be easier said than done, as they all have to go through qualifying — and a new-style qualifying at that, with so-called group qualifying instead of single-car qualification attempts.

The four NASCAR newbies are the pictured Alex Kennedy (No. 19), Victor Gonzalez Jr. (No. 36), Paulie Harraka (No. 52) and last-minute entry Justin Marks, who will be driving the No. 7 for Tommy Baldwin Racing.

The last time a NASCAR race had three or more drivers making their Sprint Cup debut was at Martinsville Speedway in October 2004, when Travis Kvapil, Chad Chaffin and Mario Gosselin all qualifying and taking the green flag on race day.

For the record, Kvapil was the highest finisher in that race, winding up 21st. Chaffin didn’t fare as well, finishing 39th, and Gosselin wound up 41st.

Al Unser Jr. back in IndyCar after a decade away: ‘Life is very good’

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There’s been somewhat of a hole in Al Unser Jr.’s heart ever since he retired from racing in 2007.

It was a void, something was missing.

But now, after a decade away from racing, Unser has found the right medicine to fill that hole in his heart: he’s back in the racing game again.

No, he’s not driving again (although he does participate occasionally in vintage races), but the two-time Indianapolis 500 (1992 and 1994) winner is definitely back in the IndyCar world.

And he couldn’t be happier.

“For me, it’s a dream come true,” Unser told IndyCar.com. “Since I stepped out of the race car and retired from racing, there’s been something missing from my life, and it’s racing.”

Unser has hooked up with Harding Racing. The team competed in three races last season as a ramp-up for a full 17-race effort this season. While Unser’s official title with the team is “consultant,” he’s involved in so much more.

His main role is as a driving coach to 2015 IndyCar Rookie of the Year Gabby Chaves. But he’s also involved in so many other areas, including helping the team obtain sponsorships and much more.

He then added, “I’m involved in every sense of the word except actually driving the car. And I’m happy about that because I’m too old to drive the car.”

Unser, who won CART championships in 1990 and 1994, is now 55. He’s so involved with his new job that he even moved from his native New Mexico and has relocated to suburban Indianapolis.

Not only is it a new start for Unser, it also is for Chaves. After running all 16 races in 2015 for Bryan Herta Autosport with Curb-Agajanian, he competed in just seven races for Dale Coyne Racing in 2016 and only three races for Harding Racing last season.

But he definitely impressed the team, with a fifth- (Texas) and ninth-place (Indianapolis 500) finish in the first two races and 15th (Pocono) in the team’s final run of the season.

That’s why when Harding Racing decided to go fulltime in 2018, Chaves was their pick for behind the wheel. And Unser was their pick to help guide him to potential stardom in the series.

“(Team owner) Mike Harding is definitely a person that when he decides to do something, he does it right,” Unser told IndyCar.com. “The potential for this organization is through the sky. We’re all working really hard here and we see the potential.”

And as for Unser?

“Life is good, life is very good,” he told IndyCar.com. “We’re back full force, eager and better than ever.”

Click here for the full story about Unser from IndyCar.com.