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Little Al right at home -- back in Indy 500 field
Associated Press

Al Unser Jr.
Al Unser Jr. climbs out of his car following his qualifying run Saturday.
INDIANAPOLIS -- Al Unser Jr. is back home, back where he belongs.

A member of one of auto racing's most famous families, Unser qualified for his 13th Indianapolis 500 start on Saturday, six years after his second victory and most recent appearance in the race.

"It relieves a lot of tension that's been festering," said Unser, whose family has won a record nine Indy 500 races. "It's the Speedway, and it's bigger than all of us. It reminds me of my rookie year. I had butterflies, and it felt like the first time I qualified."

Unser, then driving for Team Penske, last drove in the Indy 500 in 1994. The next year, none of the Penske cars was competitive and Unser and then-teammate Emerson Fittipaldi failed to qualify.

The 1995 race was the first since 1962 without at least one Unser in the lineup. Since then, cousins Johnny and Robby Unser joined the family's Indy tradition. But a boycott by CART kept Unser out of the race until this year, when he left Penske and jumped to the rival Indy Racing League with Galles Racing.

"I can safely say we're back now," Little Al said. "It's a great thing for me, my family and my team."

Unser's father, Al Sr., won four Indianapolis 500s and his uncle Bobby won three.

During the final practice before qualifications Saturday morning, rookie Andy Hillenburg crashed and Jimmy Kite, Eddie Cheever and Robby McGehee all spun out without making contact with the wall. Then, after Buzz Calkins called off an attempt after two laps, Unser was the second to try for a spot in the May 28 lineup.

The first of his four laps around the 2½-mile oval was a disappointing 218.187 mph. But he improved to more than 220 on the second lap and to more than 221 on each of the next two, going faster each time around.

"The first lap wasn't what I wanted, but we were on cold tires and I didn't want to take a chance," he said. "I was a little too careful with that lap. But seeing everybody spinning out on cold tires, I thought it was the best thing to do.

"Once I knew everything was all warmed up, then we went at it," Unser said. "We're solidly in the show, so I'm happy about that."

His four-lap average was 220.293 mph -- good for 18th on the grid at day's end.

"There's been a lot of buildup and a lot of hype," he said of the CART-IRL split and his return to Indy. "We're officially back now, and we've got 500 miles to go. We're here to win us another one."

Unser, fourth in the series standings, got his first IRL victory last month at Las Vegas.
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