SPARTA, Ky. (AP) -- There's not much question that Sunday's inaugural Belterra Resorts Indy 300 is going to be a shootout, and one of the most experienced closers in the Indy Racing League is Al Unser Jr.
The 38-year-old Unser, in his first year of IRL competition after many years in the rival CART series, heads into Friday's opening practice at the new Kentucky Speedway sixth in the standings, trailing leader Buddy Lazier by 38 points.
With two races remaining and a maximum of 55 points up for grabs in each of them, Unser, whose last of two CART crowns came in 1994, considers himself in good position for the $1 million Northern Light Cup title.
"We feel that with two races to go that we have a pretty good shot at winning the championship," Little Al said. "We took our car down to the local half-mile track in Albuquerque last week to do our installation runs. We wanted to make sure that the cars are perfect for Kentucky because we want to use all of our track time working on our setups.
"The guys are really focused, and they want this thing as much as I do. We know, though, that there are quite a few other teams that are in the hunt for this, too, so being prepared is everything to this championship right now."
Lazier, who is yet to win a championship, can't help looking over his shoulder, considering that 10 other drivers have at least a mathematical chance at catching him, and five of them are within easy striking distance.
Going into Sunday's race on the new 1.5-mile oval, Lazier is just 23 points ahead of runner-up Eddie Cheever Jr., who is also racing for his first series championship.
"I'm not sure how to treat it," Lazier said. "You try to take it out of your mind, but there's a lot of pressure. If we can win this race, that would really help us.
"Winning the championship is a career goal, something I've always wanted to do. You have to ignore the pressure and keep doing what got you there."
The 32-year-old driver from Vail, Colo., who got his third career victory on Feb. 19 in Phoenix, grabbed the IRL points lead from Cheever by finishing second to Greg Ray in the last race -- on July 15 at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Ray, the defending series champion, became the seventh different winner in as many races this season, although he is not among the title contenders in 2000 because of a series of mechanical failures and crashes.
Cheever, who won at Pikes Peak International Raceway on June 18, and led the standings for much of the season, knows what he has to do here and in the finale on Oct. 15 at Texas Motor Speedway.
"We're going to have to win one event and finish in the top five at the other to have a good shot at the title," Cheever said. "That's a very tall order when there are 10 guys that could win at any given race.
"Our races are very competitive, and the cars are all very close in terms of speed, so it comes down to pit stops, reliability and strategy."
Most of the top contenders have tested on the wide Kentucky oval, but a new venue is always full of question marks.
"When we come to a circuit like Kentucky that we've never run on before, it's a lot of, 'We think the car is going to do this,' or 'We think the car is going to do that.' And inevitably, it never does what you think it's going to do," said Cheever, 42. "I could test here for a solid month and still not learn everything that I would learn in the actual race."
Lazier echoed that, saying, "Racing at a new facility is like looking into a dark room. You really don't know what's in there until you turn the light on. The race is what will turn the light on."
Other drivers still in the IRL title chase include Scott Goodyear, Scott Sharp and Eliseo Salazar, all considered top contenders in Kentucky as practice gets underway on Friday.
"This race at Kentucky is going to be quite a showdown for a lot of teams," Unser said.
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