Montoya along for another ride

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) – Juan Pablo Montoya wasn’t fazed by the fiery crash that ended his Nextel Cup debut. And if Ryan Newman wrecked him on purpose, Montoya doesn’t care.

The brash Colombian is taking a “no worries” approach to his first season in NASCAR, which is shaping up to be one crazy ride already. His switch from the country club Formula One lifestyle to the campfire NASCAR culture has so far been smooth, despite an overwhelming interest in his every move that is quickly overshadowing many of his new rivals.

“From what I understand he’s bigger than a rock star in his country,” said Newman, a rival Dodge driver. “Just seeing him, he’s got a great character, a great attitude. I think he’s got a learning curve ahead of him; obviously every rookie does. But I think he’s capable of it.

“If I had to pick a winner of rookie of the year off the top of my head right now, I’d say it would be him.”

Newman and Montoya have already had one on-track run-in, in November’s season finale Cup race at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Montoya was having a decent first race until contact with Newman sent him hard into the wall and caused his car to burst into flames.

Although observers feared that Montoya, a veteran of open-wheel cockpits, could not quickly extract himself from the car, he deftly maneuvered through the safety equipment and climbed to safety. Two months later, he scoffs at those who wonder if that harrowing initial experience has made him question his move to NASCAR.

“There was a lot of fire … but if you look at it from where I am sitting, it was nothing,” he said during testing this week at Daytona International Speedway.

“I looked in the mirror and there were flames everywhere and I was “OK, you know what you’ve got to do.’ You can’t rush it. If you tried to rush, you are going to get out slow. Make sure you unplug the radio … make sure you shake your head enough to pull the (Hans) out, steering off, nets down – that’s a new one for me – and get out.”

Although many thought Newman’s contact with Montoya was intentional, Montoya said he never gave the incident a second thought and never expected any sort of apology.

“There is nothing to apologize for,” he said. “We are racing there and racing hard and things like that will happen.”

But as the two came face-to-face this week at a Dodge function, Newman still felt the need to explain himself.

“I think the world of you and would never do that,” Newman said. “And if I did, I’d come talk to you about it after.”

“I just do it. I don’t talk about it,” Montoya replied with a grin.

Montoya indeed has been that way in the past, when his aggressive nature caused many incidents through his days in CART and Formula One. But he’s trying hard to rein in that ultra-competitive streak and approach each new day in NASCAR as a learning experience.

He wants to be patient, and convince his rivals that he can be that way. He’s also intent on showing respect, not forcing anything and paying his dues. Just don’t mistake that approach as a built-in excuse to fail, or as an acceptance of mediocrity.

“Do we want to win races? Yes. Is the Chase in sight? Yes. Are we going to make it? I don’t know,” he said. “I’m not used to the top 10 being good. You know, in Formula One, you finish fourth and you suck. You’re always going to have that open-wheel mentality.

“I need to get to the point where I realize that if we finish in the top 10, that’s a good day. But we need to set higher goals, too.”

That’s been evident during the three days of testing at Daytona, where Montoya has been consistently quick and near the top of the speed charts. He even paced the field in Tuesday’s session of single-lap runs. The success of his No. 42 car has trickled to teammate David Stremme, who has also been fast this week and trailed only Montoya as the Chip Ganassi Racing team went 1-2 on Tuesday morning.

But there’s a flipside to Montoya’s arrival and the enormous spotlight he brought with him. There doesn’t seem to be much interest leftover for teammates Stremme and Reed Sorenson, and sometimes even the more established NASCAR stars can be overlooked in his presence.

Mark Martin, himself considered one of NASCAR’s greatest drivers, said it’s all par for the course with Montoya.

“He’s a world class champion. World. Class. Champion,” Martin said. “I know that he can do this and he will do this and he will be a great asset to NASCAR and he will have a very wonderful career. He’s going to win big in this sport, just like he has in everything else that he’s done.”

The one thing Montoya would like to do this season is widen his fan base. He’s already got a loyal U.S. following from his CART days, and has a fanatical Latin American base. Before he’s finished, he’d like to add NASCAR fans to his club.

“I’m a guy that likes driving the wheels off the race car,” he said. “I’ll race hard. I’ll have a little respect for the guys I’m racing against, and I think the fans will like that. I think we’re going to see a lot of “Oh yeah, he’s nice.’ You’re going to see some fans that think it’s a great thing and some other good ol’ boys that say, ‘We don’t want you.’ “

AP-ES-01-17-07 1719EST

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