CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) – They came draped in Colombian flags, wearing yellow national soccer jerseys and painted faces to support their hero in the biggest challenge of his career.

They whistled, chanted and cheered from start to finish Saturday as Juan Pablo Montoya thrilled his supporters with an impressive 11th-place finish in his NASCAR debut.

That tiny contingent of rabid fans who turned out at Memphis Motorsports Park was only the start. As Montoya continues his move from Formula One to NASCAR, the demographics in the grandstands should slowly widen to embrace the only Spanish-speaking driver in the field.

“When he ran the Formula One race in Indianapolis, there were probably more Colombians and Latinos there than Americans,” Felix Sabates, the Cuban-born co-owner of Montoya’s NASCAR team, said Monday.

“I expect to see that to continue to grow. I really think he will bring a lot of the Spanish market to NASCAR. We like our own.”

ESPN Deportes Radio announced Monday a five-year deal to provide Spanish-language NASCAR programming that will coincide with Montoya’s first full Nextel Cup season. Although flag-to-flag race coverage isn’t currently planned, the network hopes to expand past initial live updates and daily reports.

And Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates plans to provide a Spanish-language version of its Web site next season. The team is currently translating all of Montoya’s news conferences into Spanish transcripts.

“With him being Hispanic, from Colombia, and being able to communicate with the Latino community … it’s a huge benefit for NASCAR,” Sabates said.

But Montoya’s fans are used to winning, something he’s done his entire career. From Colombian karting titles, a junior world championship, a lower-tier Formula title, a CART championship, an Indianapolis 500 win and seven F1 victories, Montoya has been successful on every level.

This transition into stock cars isn’t expected to be as easy, and everyone associated with Montoya’s move has predicted growing pains. Even Montoya, who has a cocky and confident reputation, cautioned against unrealistic early expectations.

Only going slow isn’t in his nature. Remember, Montoya lost more F1 races than he ever won with an aggressive style and brazen strategy that often backfired.

It’s that very edge that attracted his fans, and has some believing his move to NASCAR won’t be so bumpy, after all.

“He’s going to be good. He’s got really good car control and he wants to race really bad,” said the equally brash Kevin Harvick, who won Saturday’s Busch race.

“They didn’t really like the way he raced in Formula One, but I think it will fit him just fine here.”

It might just be that Montoya is figuring that out, too. Because his cautious optimism gave way just a little bit in Memphis to the only goal Montoya really finds acceptable: Winning.

“I think I need to drive the whole team forward and show them I’m here to do business,” he said. “I know it’s all about preparing myself for next year, but I want to do well. We’re here to do a job, and the job is to win.

“I think we need to get in the mind-set with all the guys working around me that we’re not joking around here.”

So he finished 11th in his debut, which was no easy feat considering he struggled with NASCAR’s give-and-take policy and spun two different competitors. He also erred in his attempt to get a run on another car, causing him to bobble the back-end of his Dodge and make it impossible for Jason Keller to avoid hitting him. Montoya spun and went from 10th to 30th, then had to fight his way back to the finish. Still, there was a twinge of disappointment in Montoya’s and crew chief Brad Parrott’s post-race remarks.

“I think it’s real strange we are not sitting in Victory Lane right now,” Parrott said. “You’ll see this guy as the Nextel champion in the next two years … this guy can win races, there’s no doubt in my mind.”

Those very words can cause the usually unflappable Ganassi to unravel.

This switch to stock cars is supposed to come in baby steps, a little at a time. It’s why Ganassi slowly released Montoya’s schedule, refusing to confirm that he’ll enter him in the final three Busch races of the year until Monday. And if Montoya plans to run the Cup finale in Homestead, Fla., Ganassi is keeping it to himself.

But Montoya is ready to go – now. It’s the reason he left the globally popular F1 series and its gazillion dollar salaries to give NASCAR a shot.

In F1, which looks down its nose at NASCAR, most of the time in the car is spent testing. A race can last just minutes because even the slightest contact can cripple the car.

But in NASCAR, every week presents a new 500-mile challenge for him.

“The rationale is how much you love racing. How much do you do it for the money? How much you do it because you love it?” Montoya asked.

“Yes, the main salary you hear is bigger, but there is no prize moneys, there’s no bonuses, there’s no merchandise, nothing. What you get is what you get.”

“And the racing is not as fun or interesting or entertaining as this.”

AP-ES-10-30-06 1856EST,

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