Results at 1.5-mile tracks will make or break your Chase

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Here’s something I haven’t been able to write much of this week in the wake of the controversies and drama surrounding the last NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Richmond: a racing story leading into this week’s race at Chicago.

The overwhelming majority of NASCAR’s 12 Chasers in 2013 said the biggest key to success in terms of winning the championship is being good at the 1.5-mile ovals, the somewhat derided “cookie-cutter” intermediate ovals in-between a short track and a superspeedway.

Matt Kenseth enters 2013 as a Chase favorite because of his success on the 1.5-milers. He has a series-high five wins this year, three of them coming on the 1.5-milers at Las Vegas, Kansas and Kentucky.

“Yeah you’re right, certainly that’s been our strongsuit, mile and a half and intermediate tracks,” Kenseth told me in a phone interview last month. “I think it’s constantly a moving target. Be good everywhere but have some excellent tracks. We have a legitimate shot at the championship because of that. Jason (Ratcliff, crew chief) and I hit it off right away earlier this year, we have a really good leadership style and race team.”

If Kenseth doesn’t pull off his second career title in his first season with Joe Gibbs Racing, his old team Roush Fenway Racing has two contenders in Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle. Edwards acknowledged Chicago will provide a good outlook at Chase contenders and pretenders.

“You get a good measure of how the field is going to stack up,” Edwards said Thursday at NASCAR’s Chase media advance. “It’s a track where you can do well on your own merit. You won’t be mired in the back if you have a bad stop.”

Five-time champion Jimmie Johnson said his No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet team has had the speed on the 1.5-milers this year but not the finishes, nor the momentum. Hendrick Motorsports teammate Kasey Kahne said you “need” to be good at these tracks to have any sort of shot.

Here’s a rundown of race winners on the 1.5-milers this year. Note all 2013 race winners thus far are in the Chase:

3. Las Vegas   Matt Kenseth
7. Texas       Kyle Busch
8. Kansas      Matt Kenseth
12. Charlotte  Kevin Harvick
17. Kentucky   Matt Kenseth
25. Atlanta    Kyle Busch

1.5-mile races in Chase, with 2012 winner 
27. Chicago    Brad Keselowski 
30. Kansas     Matt Kenseth
31. Charlotte  Clint Bowyer
34. Texas      Jimmie Johnson
36. Homestead  Jeff Gordon

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.