As much as NASCAR Nextel Cup star Tony Stewart would love to be racing in Sunday’s Indianapolis 500, he’ll be spending the day about 600 miles away in Concord, N.C.

But the five-time Indy starter, who will be racing in Sunday night’s Coca-Cola 600, will try to catch as much of the big event in Indiana as he can.

“I’ll wake up in time to watch the start of it and I’ll take a shower during the first commercial and watch as much of it as I can, just like I have the last couple of years,” Stewart said. “I enjoy the race and I enjoy watching the race. I think it’s going to be a tighter field than ever, so I’ll be excited to see it just like everyone else will.”

Stewart spent his formative years in open-wheel cars in the U.S. Auto Club and the Indy Racing League, where he won the championship in the combined 1996-97 season before heading for NASCAR.

The Indiana native couldn’t get open-wheel racing out of his blood and did a grueling double in 1999 and 2001, running both the 500 and the 600 on the same day, a feat that both John Andretti and Robby Gordon also have accomplished. But with Indy moving its starting time to 1 p.m. EDT this year, the double is virtually impossible now.

“It’s too bad, because I think the time change added a lot of excitement to the day, even though it was a very tough thing to do,” the 2002 Cup champion said.

Stewart loves NASCAR, but he misses racing in the IRL and would love to see more people discover the joys of open-wheel racing.

“Everybody likes NASCAR-style racing, where guys can race wheel-to-wheel,” Stewart said. “When I started in the IRL, I remember running at Texas with Buddy Lazier, and after the race was over he was yelling at me because we ran side-by-side for three laps.

“Now, they’re doing that for entire races at the mile-and-a-half tracks and the fans love it. It’s just a good formula. It’s brought NASCAR-style racing to open-wheel racing. I never would’ve had my opportunity to race at Indy if it weren’t for (IRL founder) Tony George and the IRL.”

The IRL has been criticized for having too many foreign drivers and too few Americans, but Stewart has a different view.

“I want to see the best drivers get rides,” he said. “If they come out of USAC, or if they come out of other countries, I don’t care where they come from. I’m not one of those people who say, Hey, we have to have Americans in the series.’

“The Indianapolis 500 is about the fastest 33 Indy car drivers going for one prize. If they happen to come from America, that’s great. But it’s not fair to other drivers from around the world if they’re one of the best but they don’t have the chance to run Indy because of what nation they’re from. I just think there are a lot of drivers from the United States and all over that truly have the talent to do it, so they deserve a shot.”

FIRST-YEAR BLUES: It takes most Nextel Cup rookies a while to get comfortable with a new team and the raised level of competition, and Travis Kvapil is no exception.

Heading into the Coca-Cola 600, the 12th race of the season, Kvapil has only one top-10 finish – seventh at Bristol – and has completed only 86.2 percent of the total laps run. He is 33rd in the season standings.

But the Penske Racing South driver, teammate of established stars Rusty Wallace and Ryan Newman, is feeling optimistic after finishing third and leading nearly half the race in last Saturday’s Nextel Open at Lowe’s Motor Speedway.

“The Kodak team is making strides and that finish shows what we can do,” Kvapil said. “We know we have a team capable of winning. We just need to work on the little things to get us there.

“I sound like a broken record, but this team has the components necessary to be successful,” added Kvapil, who replaced Brendan Gaughan in the No. 77 entry this season. “We have been our own worst enemy at times. We don’t fault anyone but ourselves for some of the problems we have run into. This past weekend we executed well during practice and qualifying, which resulted in a good finish.”

Longtime NASCAR star Buddy Baker has been working with Kvapil, and the rookie says the coaching has helped a lot.

“Buddy pointed out some mistakes that I made on the track during the Open and that will help this weekend for the Coca-Cola 600,” Kvapil said.

GONG SHOW: Roush Racing’s Gong Show is going public.

Jack Roush’s team has held on-track auditions several times in recent years to find a new driver for his NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series team, with reigning Nextel Cup champion Kurt Busch and current truck entry Todd Kluever coming out of those programs.

This year, 25 drivers will get the chance to compete for a fully sponsored ride with the Roush team and Discovery Channel will go behind the scenes of the selection process as the candidates are put through a barrage of tests challenging their physical and mental abilities and evaluating their media savvy and general fan appeal.

“We found Kurt Busch through a similar program in 1999,” Roush said. “He was so exceptional we moved him to Nextel Cup in only one year. He has clearly demonstrated he has what it takes to be a champion.

“Todd Kluever was given a long-term contract last year through this program, and we plan on finding that next talented driver who will fit into the Roush Racing winning tradition.”

Team president Geoff Smith said this will be among the most real of the reality shows on television.

“Our unique format captures the best elements from all the aspirational reality shows I’ve seen, except ours is totally genuine, totally us, conceived to find Roush a champion and not just conceived for TV,” Smith said.

STAT OF THE WEEK: Hendrick Motorsports is the winningest Cup team at Lowe’s Motor Speedway with 11 victories by five different drivers. Jeff Gordon leads the way with four, followed by Jimmie Johnson with three, Darrell Waltrip two and Terry Labonte and Ken Schrader with one apiece.

AP-ES-05-26-05 2315EDT

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