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DAYTONA 500 NOTES

Montoya gets to the finish but never quite gets in gear

February 19, 2007|Kevin Baxter | Times Staff Writer

DAYTONA BEACH, FLA. — Juan Pablo Montoya made it to the finish this time.

Barely.

The former open-wheel champion's NASCAR Nextel Cup debut ended in a fiery crash 17 laps from the finish of last November's Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami. But in Sunday's Daytona 500, he narrowly avoided three major accidents and trashed his gearbox with a missed shift, yet still managed to limp across the line 19th.

Then he got wiped out by Jeff Gordon only a few feet beyond the finish.

"Well, I got to the end," said Montoya, who patiently answered questions in English and Spanish for more than 30 minutes after climbing from his damaged Dodge. "The funny thing is, I crossed in one piece. And as I slowed down, the 24 car came across and wrecked my whole car. It was crazy."

So ended an interesting week for the Colombian driver, whose cachet and international fame NASCAR is counting on to jump-start the sport's stalled growth. Montoya was featured in Sports Illustrated and landed on the front page of more than a dozen major newspapers, including USA Today, last week. At the track, where fans paraded through the pits carrying Colombian flags, his sponsors sold out of toy cars, caps and T-shirts.

On the track, meanwhile, Montoya led for nearly 20 laps in a qualifying race for the 500 before a broken wheel sent him to the garage. Then he ran with the leaders in Saturday's Busch race before engine trouble ended his day early.

He never got near the front Sunday, experiencing handling issues all day. In fact he didn't even reach the top 20 until the final restart, then improved one spot in the last two laps.

But considering what he had to survive to get there, it was no surprise that he was smiling afterward.

"We were lucky," he said. "We were right in the middle of every wreck and we didn't hit anything. It was crazy. You start seeing sparks and then smoke and you know it's coming....

"It's a shame. We had a really fast car."

*

Toyota's much-debated foray into the Nextel Cup series made a lot more news off the track than it did on it. The first foreign automaker to field an entrant in stock-car racing's highest series since Smokey Cook drove an MG in 1963, Toyota started four cars Sunday but only two finished, and only one of those -- the Camry driven by Dale Jarrett, which was 22nd -- was on the lead lap at the end.

Michael Waltrip, who was at the center of a cheating scandal when a fuel additive was discovered in his manifold, was never a factor, finishing 30th. And Dave Blaney and David Reutimann went out in two of the many crashes in the final 30 laps.

"We were hoping for somebody to turn up in the top 15. And actually when the wrecks started happening, we really thought it might work out," said Lee White, senior vice president and general manager of racing development for Toyota. "I think everyone understands the mountain we have to climb. The most important thing is for everyone to keep improving."

Toyota did much better in NASCAR's other two series openers this weekend, taking four of the top five spots Friday in a Craftsman truck race won by Toyota driver Jack Sprague, before Blaney finished second in Saturday's Busch event.

"In spite of all the turmoil throughout the week, we still had a good weekend," White said.

*

Waltrip was just about the only accused cheater who didn't prosper Sunday. Elliott Sadler and Kasey Kahne, who both lost their crew chiefs and were docked Nextel Cup points for rules infractions involving small aerodynamic adjustments made to their cars in preparation for the Daytona 500, finished sixth and seventh, respectively.

"That's an unbelievable finish, for the week we've had," Sadler said. "We've just got to put this week behind us."

Matt Kenseth, who was also penalized, finished 27th, getting caught in one of the late-race accidents after running with the leaders, and the fourth penalized driver, Scott Riggs, ended 37th after being involved in an accident early in the race.

Given the difficulty drivers have had passing certification, perhaps the loudest cheer of the week was heard in the press room several hours after the 500, when NASCAR official Kerry Tharp announced that post-race inspections had been completed and -- surprise! -- everyone had passed.

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

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