HOMESTEAD, Fla. (AP) – Juan Pablo Montoya learned a lot in his first Nextel Cup race: how to run in traffic, communicate with his crew and climb out of a flame-engulfed stock car ready to explode.

The former Formula One and Indy car star making the jump to NASCAR finished 34th in the final race of the season Sunday, ending in a fiery spin 16 laps short of the finish after Ryan Newman nudged him from behind. He was not injured, but the wreck delayed the finish of the race for eight minutes.

Though irrelevant to the finish, it was one of the more exciting moments in the Chase clincher that gave Jimmie Johnson his first series title.

Montoya, a brash and aggressive figure on the F1 circuit, said after leaving the infield medical center that he wasn’t even certain who hit him.

“I really don’t know what happened,” Montoya said. “I think the 12 (Newman) got me in the back, but I’m not sure which car got me.”

The accident appeared at first to be retaliation by Newman, who was spun out by Montoya several laps earlier, bringing out a caution flag.

“When (Newman) spun we didn’t even touch. He came up to me and if that’s what he wanted to do, I don’t care,” Montoya said. “I’m not racing for points or anything here. I think it was fine today.”

Newman and his crew chief were summoned to the NASCAR hauler to talk about the incident, but the driver said it was not intentional and had told Montoya as much.

Newman, finishing out a disappointing season in which he wound up 18th in the points, said of the first incident, “He never touched me, other than we were going for the same real estate. His bumper went across my nose and that spun him right around. What happened off turn four (in the second incident) was totally my fault. I lost the car. I got into him and we got door-to-door and that spun me around.

“I felt bad for the situation because, obviously, it looked like I was retaliating, but that’s not the case. That’s what we just talked about.”

Montoya started 29th and got as high as 13th with 52 laps to go, making a top 10 finish on his first try NASCAR a realistic possibility. But he hit the wall alone about 12 laps later, forcing his thrown-together Chip Ganassi Racing pit crew to patch up the car.

“We got that fixed and got out there, and we were just going to try to finish the last 15 laps, but unfortunately things just didn’t work out,” crew chief Steve Boyer said.

Montoya made the race in qualifying Friday. Car owner Chip Ganassi could have put him in the No. 42 Dodge, which Casey Mears has been racing all season and was already qualified. But Ganassi wanted Montoya to make his own way.

The Colombian-born open-wheel star will drive the No. 42 full-time next season when Mears leaves for Hendrick Motorsports. Montoya previously teamed with Ganassi for his 1999 Cart championship and the Indianapolis 500 title in 2000, and has said he’s looking for a new atmosphere and challenge in stock cars.

He was hugely successful in F1, but America’s biggest circuit is an entirely different breed, from the cars and courses to technology and etiquette.

Montoya and the crew were positive about Sunday’s performance, even though it ruined the No. 30 Dodge.

“He did a great job. He learned about how a car needs to feel. He learned about different lines, he learned about who he can race around and who he can’t,” Boyer said. “I think once he steps into that No. 42 Havoline Dodge next year, I think he’ll be fine.”

The race was only Montoya’s fifth in NASCAR. He raced the Busch Series Saturday and the past three weeks, finishing as high as 11th and as far down as 28th. Montoya was disappointed with a 14th place Busch finish Saturday, believing the team had a top 10 car.

He was more optimistic Sunday, despite not finishing with the circuit’s top drivers. He said all along the Cup race would be the best measuring stick of his progress in transition, and sounded pleased on the mike with his crew.

“I tell you, this what racing is all about. It’s hard but it’s so cool,” Montoya radioed after David Gilliland hit the wall, forcing an opportune caution with 93 laps to go.

Montoya and Ganassi both said they’d approach the race cautiously. They were looking for experience, not fast laps and enemies in their first Cup run. Montoya says that’s what he got.

“I did accomplish what I was looking for,” Montoya said. “I got experience and got to know the guys and it was good.”

AP-ES-11-19-06 2100EST

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