A Wheaton man was beaten up on New Year's Day by a group of people who left him in the street, where he was struck and dragged by an unsuspecting motorist, Montgomery County police said yesterday.

The 29-year-old man, whose name was not released, remained in critical condition at an undisclosed hospital yesterday but was improving, police said. The man, who friends said works in a restaurant, suffered abrasions so severe on his stomach, right thigh and left inner thigh from the dragging that police and paramedics who found him lying in the road said they initially believed he had been burned by fire.

Police, who did not disclose the incident for two days, at first provided few details and did not clarify until yesterday that they did not believe the man was dragged deliberately. Officials also said the police department's specialized accident reconstruction team was not called to investigate the incident.

Police said they have no witnesses or leads on the five attackers, who were described only as three men and two women in their twenties.

Detectives also want to interview as a witness the driver who hit the man and drove off, said Capt. John King, commander of the Montgomery police department's Wheaton District.

A top police official said detectives believe that the motorist who hit the man was driving a truck.

The motorist, whose identity isn't known, apparently struck the man unintentionally and may not even have realized that someone was hit, King said.

"We would really have to look at the total facts involved" before determining whether the driver would face prosecution, King said. "We think someone turned the corner and didn't see him in the roadway because he'd been knocked down."

Although the victim and another man who were attacked are Hispanic and told detectives that the group that attacked them was black, King said the assault appears to have been an attempted robbery rather than a hate crime or racially motivated.

Montgomery State's Attorney Douglas F. Gansler said his office would not rule out a hate crime until knowing what, if anything, the attackers said to the victims.

"We don't know if it is a hate crime, but it's something we wouldn't rule out without knowing the facts," Gansler said.

Police said the man and a 39-year-old friend were walking home from a New Year's party at a friend's home on Amherst Avenue about 5 a.m. on New Year's Day when they were attacked outside a 7-Eleven store on Amherst Avenue at Blueridge Avenue. The group didn't make any demands for money or say anything before tripping and punching them, police said.

"They were totally surprised by the whole thing," police spokesman Derek Baliles said. "They didn't see it coming."

The older man, who was badly beaten, got away and tried to flag down passing motorists, but no one stopped, police said. He then ran to a Shell gas station at University Boulevard and Amherst, where he asked the attendant to call the police.

The attendant, who spoke on condition that his name not be published, said yesterday that he heard a loud screech, like a car braking quickly or making a sharp turn.

Five minutes later, the attendant said, the older man came in, bloody with bruises across his face and under his eyes, and said he and a friend had just been "jumped."

When police arrived, the man told officers that he believed the attackers were trying to rob them, the attendant said. Pulling a wad of $20 bills from his blue jacket, the man told officers: "At least they didn't get my money."

The attendant said the man was intoxicated and told police he was a bartender in the District.

Meanwhile, King said, the younger man was beaten by the group--no one was armed--in a "moving fight" that progressed south on Amherst toward University, where the man ended up in the intersection. A car that most likely came from around a nearby corner struck the man and dragged him on his right side about a block, before he became detached from the car at Reedie Drive, near the Wheaton Metro station, police said.

Police said they are seeking witnesses to find out whether the group that attacked the man was present when the car struck him.

"They just jumped him and left him on the street," said Eric Alvarado, whose mother hosted the New Year's party that the two men attended.

King said the police investigation has been hampered by the fact that both victims were intoxicated and remember few details.

Julio Marquina, who lives in the apartment where the party was held, said the two victims came to the apartment after midnight New Year's Eve when they got off work.

A friend who had given them a ride to the apartment left before they did, so they were looking for a cab when they left the apartment and were attacked, Marquina said.

"They beat them up right outside the building," he said.

Police said they did not disclose the incident until Monday and then only because detectives ran out of leads and are seeking the public's help in locating witnesses.

"I don't know if we missed [publicizing] it in the Y2K hoopla," King said. "I don't know why it wasn't released."

Police spokeswoman Joyce Barrow said police do not routinely release information about attacks unless they are fatal.

Detectives "aren't trying to hide anything," Barrow said. "They just exhausted all their leads and tried to talk to any witnesses in the area" before publicizing the incident.

Staff writer Manuel Perez-Rivas contributed to this report.

CAPTION: "We don't know if it is a hate crime," Montgomery State's Attorney Douglas F. Gansler said.