Neuenberger has hopes for long haul


DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - When qualifying for the Craftsman Truck Series takes place this afternoon, Brandywine, Md., driver Donnie Neuenberger plans to place himself safely in the field as the first step toward a season-long project.

"We're going to try to run the whole season," said Neuenberger, 39. "But I don't have the funding in hand yet. If we could have a good race here, it would mean good exposure for our sponsor and perhaps encourage them to complete the deal. We need the fans to keep e-mailing IHOP and telling them they need to be in this sport."

The International House of Pancakes is the "big" name on Neuenberger's No. 81 truck. A month ago, at a season-kickoff dinner, officials announced he had a full season's sponsorship with the company. Neuenberger didn't deny it at the time, but now shakes his head sheepishly.

"People see IHOP and think you've got a big sponsorship and that's just not the case," he said, pointing out he has nine personal sponsors from Maryland displayed on the car. "I still haven't found the golden goose."

Neuenberger, who finished ninth here in a Rick Ware-owned Ford in 2000, is now driving a Dodge for the same owner.

The Craftsman Florida Dodge Dealers 250 is set for Friday at 1 p.m.

Driver of the Year

Winston Cup champion Jeff Gordon picked up his trophy as Driver of the Year yesterday, while exchanging barbs with former driver and now television commentator Darrell Waltrip.

"No record is safe anymore," said a grinning Waltrip, who, with Mario Andretti, had been tied with Gordon as three-time winners of the award. "Now, this old guy here is the only four-time champ. Let me tell you, this has always been a good award to win because it's non-political. It was really cool in my era."

And then turning to Gordon, Waltrip said, "I did have an era."

"We know," shot back Gordon. "You tell us all the time."

And then Gordon got serious.

"I'm very pleased to accept this," he said, "but I don't know how I can. I'd like to say I won it all on my own, but the key to my job is a machine. It has to be built just right and tuned just right and for that I need a team. I know how important it is to be racing for Rick Hendrick Motorsports."

Petty fastest

Kyle Petty was the fastest second-day qualifier yesterday, clocking 183.081 mph. His Dodge is the 27th fastest on the grid and makes entry into the Daytona 500 Sunday iffy if he does not run well in Thursday's 125-mile qualifying races.

"We ran a 49 flat [about 183.665 mph] this morning in practice. ... We missed our chance Saturday," he said. "We could have been a top 10 or 15 car, now we're 27th. That's borderline. ... We really don't know where anyone stacks up right now. How can you know? They've changed the rules since last year. You just don't know where anybody's at."

Debate goes on

It doesn't matter whether you're talking to Chevrolet, Pontiac, Ford or Dodge people, everyone seems disgruntled by the rules - though the Ford stable is smiling more since Sunday's rule change that took a quarter-inch off its rear spoiler.

"It gives us an extra two-tenths of a second," said beaming Ford driver Rusty Wallace.

"Our cars are exactly like the Fords," said Dodge driver Jimmy Spencer. "If the Fords needed the rule change, we need it, too."

"I guess Ford whined enough to get NASCAR to make the change," said Gordon, who drives a Chevy. "But it makes you wonder why they're doing something for them when they wouldn't do anything for us two years ago when we were in the same situation."

Daytona 500 facts

What: Daytona 500, opening race of the NASCAR Winston Cup season

Site: Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway

When: Sunday, 12:30 p.m.

TV: Chs. 11, 4

Pole-sitter: Jimmie Johnson

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