– By JENNA FRYER

The Associated Press

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Forgive Juan Pablo Montoya if he doesn’t find the fireball jokes very funny. He’s just totally over them a year after crashing into a jet dryer during the Daytona 500.

The wreck in last year’s race caused a raging inferno that stopped the event for two hours and made Montoya an instant punch-line.

“People are dumb enough to think I hit the thing on purpose, like I really want to try and kill myself,” said Montoya, who has a short fuse when asked about the crash that occurred when something broke on his car as he raced around the track under caution.

“That was a freak accident, and in a way, I was very, very lucky to walk away from that one. Not only myself, but the guy driving the jet dryer. To walk away with nothing out of that it was a miracle. I was glad it was over.”

But it set the tone for yet another disappointing season that Montoya is eager to put behind him.

Montoya finished 22nd in points last year with only two top-10 finishes all season, and since leaving Formula One midway through 2006, he’s yet to find the success he’d been accustomed to his entire career.

The Colombian driver has had no consistency whatsoever in NASCAR. He’s got just two Sprint Cup Series victories, both on road courses, and his 2009 berth in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship is his only appearance.

“It is not humbling. It (stinks),” he said. “It’s not about humbling. I’ve won at everything I have been in, and I came to NASCAR and I’ve been good. I know I can do it. To run where we’ve run, it hasn’t been fun.”

It’s been a constant battle at Chip Ganassi Racing to get Montoya and teammate Jamie McMurray running up front, and the team owner made wholesale behind the scenes changes before the 2012 season. But the performance never improved for either driver, and both Montoya and McMurray insisted change wasn’t going to happen overnight.

After a full year, though, Montoya is determined to do his part off the track. He’s working out harder than he ever did in F1, he said, and looks considerably slimmer. And he’s clearly buoyed by driving the closing stint in the Ganassi team’s win last month in the prestigious Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona sports car race.

Although it was Montoya’s third Rolex win, he’d never before closed the race.

That was a confidence booster for a driver who perhaps has been tested by this rash of mediocrity.

“You always wonder ‘Can I do anything different?’ But even when you run good, you think about how you can make it better,” he said. “It is hard. When the cars don’t have enough speed, you can compensate for a little bit, but if they aren’t good, they aren’t good. I was telling someone the other day, we are not miracle workers. So you start trying different things, and sometimes you make more damage than help by trying different things.

“I think I’m a lot better driver than I was four or five years ago. I have not only the open-wheel experience, but the stock car experience. I understand how the races work. How everything is done.”

Montoya is entering a critical year in his contract with Ganassi, whom he teamed with to win the 1999 CART championship and the 2000 Indianapolis 500. The owner holds an option on next season for Montoya, and it’s possible their long relationship could be coming to an end.

But Montoya is adamant he wants to be with Ganassi, with sponsor Target and in NASCAR.

“I am committed to Chip and to Target. And we are committed to make this work,” Montoya said.

“We’re going to try to make this work. Chip is committed to it. He fired everybody he didn’t think that was working and he needed new people, he hired new people. As everybody starts coming together, you kind of expect everybody to work perfect side-by-side from day one. But they have to understand, and understand the problem. One you understand the problems, then you can find solutions.

“The racing is still amazing. I still love it. I still love being here. But, when you’re not running good, it’s not fun. I don’t think it is fun for anybody.”

NOTES

MUTED CELEBRATION: Tony Stewart won Saturday’s NASCAR Nationwide Series DRIVE4COPD 300, but it was a subdued victory as the triumph was marred by the wreck that injured fans in the grandstand.

As Stewart’s No. 33 Chevrolet crossed the finish line, a 12-car wreck took out most of the leaders, including Kyle Larson, whose No. 32 Chevrolet was sent into the grandstand safety fence. The force of the wreck sheared Larson’s car in half, sending part of it into the stands. Larson was treated and released at the infield care center.

“I looked in the mirror and that’s the worst image I’ve ever seen in a race in my life,” said a subdued Stewart.

It was the second major wreck in the final five laps of the 120-lap race.

The first wreck, which involved 13 cars, brought out the red flag on Lap 116.

After a nearly 20-minute delay, the race was restarted and Stewart took command, winning on a green-white-checkered finish.

Sam Hornish Jr. finished second, followed by Alex Bowman and Dale Earnhardt Jr.

DALE JR. TOPS: Dale Earnhardt Jr. posted the fastest final practice time for the Daytona 500 when he took his No. 88 Chevy around the 2.5-mile Daytona International Speedway at a speed of 198.592 mph. His single-lap speed was 45.319. Earnhardt will start from the 10th row for Sunday’s race.

David Gilliland was second on the day with a top speed of 198.421 mph, followed by Clint Bowyer, Marcus Ambrose and Aric Almirola to round out the top five.

Danica Patrick, who will start on the pole position, did not practice.

CAUTIONARY NOTE: Trevor Bayne, who started the day on the pole, had engine problems on Lap 84, sending his No. 6 Cargill Ford — smoke and all — back toward the garage and bringing out the fourth caution of the day.