With 7 races left to make the Chase, things are going to go from mild to wild

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The so-called Race to the Chase just got real.

With the final off-weekend of the season next, followed by 17 straight weeks of racing, the remaining seven races leading up to the start of the Chase for the Sprint Cup could once again rival some of the most intense action we’ll see in the actual Chase itself.

The reason is simple: even with seven races remaining, only six drivers are essentially locked into the Chase after Sunday’s race at New Hampshire.

With Brad Keselowski winning Sunday, he’s at the top of the pack with Jimmie Johnson – who had a terrible day at New Hampshire, finishing 42nd due to an early-race wreck – both with three wins apiece.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. is also officially in the Chase, with fellow two-time race winners Carl Edwards, Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick all but locked in, as well.

Single race winners Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Aric Almirola and Kurt Busch are all but confirmed for the 10-race playoffs.

But with seven races left to make the Chase and at least nine winless drivers still in the fray, we’re going to see a lot more risk-taking and heated driving from Indianapolis through Richmond.

If the Chase were to start today, Matt Kenseth, Ryan Newman, Clint Bowyer, Paul Menard and rookie Kyle Larson would be in.

And rookie Austin Dillon, Greg Biffle, Kasey Kahne and Brian Vickers would be left on the outside looking in.

That’s why it’s more crucial than it has been the last few weeks that winless drivers such as Kenseth, Bowyer, Biffle and Tony Stewart – among all the others – find a way to get to victory lane in the remaining seven races prior to the Chase.

In a sense, the race to the Chase will be seven races of desperation. And as the old saying goes, desperate times call for desperate measures.

As a result, we’re likely to see significantly more beating and banging, more blocking and spinning out fellow competitors. With so much on the line, there’s really not much recourse but for those on the bubble or outside looking in to drive like men (and women) possessed.

Stewart could be one of the biggest keys in the next seven races. Not only has he failed to win yet this season, he also runs the risk of not making the Chase for the second consecutive season.

Sure, he missed last year’s Chase due to injuries sustained in a sprint car wreck early last August. But to miss a second Chase – which would mark the first time that’s ever happened to Stewart – would be unheard of.

Only if Stewart were to rally in these next seven races and earn enough points to qualify for the Chase, will he make it. This is not 2011, when he also failed to win any races prior to the Chase, only to still make the playoff on points and then ripped off five wins in the 10 marquee events to capture his third championship.

Click here to take a look at the Chase standings after New Hampshire.

And then click here for the actual Sprint Cup point standings to see where the landscape rests heading into the final off-weekend of, what else, rest.

Because from here on out, there’ll be no rest for the wannabe’s who will do anything they need to do to make the show, regardless of the risk.

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

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.