The first season of unified IndyCar Series racing may have been wrapped up at Chicagoland Speedway last weekend, but the feeder category left out in the wilderness by the 'merger' of the Indy Racing League and Champ Car continues this weekend at the new Thunderbolt Raceway at New Jersey Motorsports Park.

Drivers and teams from the Atlantic Championship got their first look at the new facility on Friday, with Carl Skerlong posting the quickest lap of an open test. The Pacific Coast Motorsport driver lapped at 1min 10.259secs to set an early series benchmark for the weekend and leave the pack four tenths adrift as the first two sessions of the day were run under overcast conditions and the third in light rain.

"If I can do what I do in practice in the race, that'd be great," Skerlong said, "It's a new track, and it's a pretty level playing field for everyone, so to show up and be a fair margin ahead of everybody is definitely a good feeling going into the weekend.

"All the guys have worked really hard in our little break. It's been a long break, but well needed - it's kind of nice to enjoy the last few months of good weather for summer. I'm really excited for these last three races and, hopefully, we'll be able to improve on the little dilemmas we've had throughout the year."

Despite feeling a bit under the weather on Friday, rookie Markus Niemela was second quickest in testing with a lap at 1min 10.622secs for Brooks Associates Racing.

"I like this track," the Finn said, "It's a fast track and it's got great corners, but I didn't feel that I did that well today. I've been feeling sick all day. I think it's something I ate. I don't know if I'm quite ready for qualifying yet, but we'll see tomorrow."

Rookie of the Year points leader Jonathan Summerton was third quickest on the day, lapping at 1min 10.675secs in the #36 Newman Wachs Racing machine. The American holds an eight-point lead over Niemela in the rookie standings and only trails overall championship leader Jonathan Bomarito by 28 points with three races remaining.

"The new track is amazing, and a lot of fun," Summerton noted, "It's a bit dirty out there, but I really enjoyed the track. It's interesting. There are a lot of fun corners and a lot of good corners. We'll see how it is for the race. The car was good. We made a few changes here and there and it helped. I think we'll be very competitive for qualifying. I'm looking forward to it."

Bomarito turned in the day's fourth quickest time in the #26 Mathiasen Motorsports entry, putting him ahead of Canadians Kevin Lacroix and James Hinchcliffe, with the latter's Forsythe team-mate David Martinez, Tom Sutherland, an inspired Frankie Muniz and Simona de Silvestro in the top ten.

With a series-leading three victories from the first eight races, Bomarito holds a comfortable 28-point lead over Summerton ahead of Sunday's Mazda Formula Zoom-Zoom event, having also taken three pole positions in eight outings and finished sixth or better in each of his last six starts.

Three drivers who have led the championship at one point or another this summer occupy positions three, four and five in the standings, but all are very much in need of strong performances this weekend to keep their title hopes alive. Hinchcliffe and Niemela find themselves tied with 155 points, with Hinchcliffe holding third in the standings by virtue of a victory in round two at Laguna Seca in May., but having lost considerable ground in the title chase with a 20th-place run at Trois-Rivieres following contact with Lacroix.

Niemela, meanwhile, also saw his championship hopes take a hit in Canada when mechanical problems relegated him to 17th, the first time that either driver had finished outside the top ten all season.

"We're heading into the final three races of the year and, without doubt, it's our turn to get back on top," Hinchcliffe insisted, "We had a pretty rough August by our standards, so we're really in a position now where, if we're not winning races, we're not going to have a shot at winning the championship. As a result, we've changed our approach slightly. We're no longer targeting strong points finishes, we're after race wins - simple as that!

"I know we all go racing to win but, at this point of the season, and with the way the championship's shaped out, it's looking a bit like Jonathan [Bomarito]'s title to lose. He's the one with the target on his back, so he might have to play things a little carefully as he has the most to lose. From our point of view, if we don't leave New Jersey with a win and he's up on the podium again, it pretty much writes off our chances. I think we've made some gains on the engineering front to try and get the car a little more suited to my style, which will hopefully allow me to attack more, and we're going all out to end the season on a high starting with this weekend!"

Dutchman Junior Strous is currently fifth in points, ten behind third, but endured a bit of a slump immediately after taking his first career Atlantic victory and claimed the points lead at Mont-Tremblant in June.

Had it not been for 17th place in round seven at Road America last month, American rookie Dane Cameron would also likely be in the thick of the championship battle, while Skerlong also has reason to dislike Lady Luck after a run of inconsistent performances.

"I've touched base with some guys I know who've already raced at New Jersey Motorsports Park, and I think we've got a fair understanding of what we'll be facing, but there's no substitute for being out there in the car. Once again, qualifying will be all important, but it should be a fairly level playing field as we'll all be new to the circuit with these cars.

"Realistically, I'm targeting getting up to third in the points before the season's out, as we've had our fair share of incidents to prevent a run at the title, and I'd like to get my first Atlantic win on the board as well, so here's hoping I'll get a shot on Sunday!"