25 years ago, Derrike Cope pulled off one of the greatest upsets in Daytona 500 history

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source: Getty Images
It was 25 years ago today that Derrike Cope won the 1990 Daytona 500. (Getty Images)

When Derrike Cope crossed the finish line in the 1990 Daytona 500, it was one of the greatest upsets in NASCAR history.

But rather than think about the significance of what he had just accomplished or how he beat Dale Earnhardt on the final lap in a David vs. Goliath battle, Cope’s mind went in a different direction.

“It was my dad, actually,” Cope said with emotion in his voice when he spoke of his father, Donald. “Once I kind of got whoa’d down, I just started thinking about my dad and what it had taken to get there.”

It was Donald Cope who instilled a love for racing in his sons, Derrike and Darren. A well-known national touring Top Fuel drag racer and engine builder, Donald was always there to support his sons and their racing efforts.

Even on that race day and at home in Spanaway, Wash., Donald wasn’t going to miss watching his son run in the Great American Race. When the local TV station blacked out the Daytona 500 to televise an NBA game, Donald and a number of friends drove more than an hour to a hotel that had the race on its TV system.

That was Feb. 18, 1990, one of the greatest upsets and heartbreaks in Daytona 500 history.

With less than a half a lap left, Dale Earnhardt appeared headed to victory, only to suffer a cut tire that left him with a fifth-place finish in his 12th try at winning the event.

Just over 10 years after he got into a race car for the first time,  Cope had won the Great American Race.

Cope still remembers that day with great vision and shared a number of recollections from that day and his career with NASCAR Talk:

‘IT SEEMS LIKE IT WAS YESTERDAY’

Cope probably should never have been at Daytona on the day that changed his life forever. He was a gifted and talented baseball prospect from San Diego, a standout catcher who had all the ingredients to one day become a Major League Baseball star.

But when the Whitman College player suffered a career-ending knee injury, he went from running around basepaths to running around racetracks.

He started small, running dirt track races in and around his adopted hometown of Spanaway, Wash. After several years of part-time racing on the then-Winston Cup Series, he finally became a full-time driver on the circuit in 1988.

Two years later, Cope would join one of NASCAR’s most exclusive fraternities as one of just 35 drivers who have won NASCAR’s biggest race.

A FEELING THAT KEPT GETTING STRONGER

Cope came into Daytona in 1990 with the same kind of elevated optimism that his rivals had.

“[Crew chief] Buddy Parrott was one of those types of individuals that really tried to instill certain things in you with regard to patience and making sure we get to the end because we’ll have a shot to win and the car is good enough,” Cope said. “’We just have to take care of it.’ That was our mindset coming into Sunday.”

Up to that point, Parrott had played it cool, perhaps not wanting to let on that the No. 10 Purolator Chevrolet Lumina was not just race-worthy, it was perhaps the best car Parrott had ever had at Daytona.

The night before the race, Cope picked up on Parrott’s aura.

“I felt we had one of the cars to beat,” Cope said. “I remember I called my brother [Darren] the night before the race and said, ‘I know it sounds crazy, but I think I can win this thing. … If I can take care of this thing, this car is fast enough to win this race.’ ”

FROM GREEN FLAG TO CHECKERED FLAG

Heading into the 32nd Daytona 500, Cope had never finished higher than sixth in any of his previous 71 Winston Cup starts.

He had signed to drive for team owner Bob Whitcomb prior to the start of the 1989 season. One year later, Cope was about to pay incredible dividends in return.

“We ran up front pretty much all day long,” Cope said. “Late in the race, we were in a position to be upfront. The car was a little bit free, so we came in [to the pits]. We did not take on tires, just fuel. And instead of knocking the spoiler up, Buddy knocked the spoiler down, which was freeing the car up more so I could get more speed.

“When we had the last caution, Dale [Earnhardt] and a lot of others had taken on tires. Some stayed out and we stayed out too, on old tires.

“I remember those last six, seven laps. The car was extremely free and I was on used tires and Dale and those guys were on new tires. … I did not lift on the last 13 laps. I ran flat on the mat.

“It was coming down to the white flag lap. I was closing in on Dale real quick and he was backing up, so I drove to the bottom. His car wiggled, he turned to the right to catch it, and I slipped by on the bottom. After I drove by him, I looked behind me and saw a three-car gap between me and Terry [Labonte]. I knew then that if I don’t lift, Terry and Bill [Elliott] weren’t going to beat us. They really couldn’t do anything to me.

“When I came off [turn] four, I really felt we were in position to win this race. It was pure adulation there when we went underneath the checkered flag.”

A DEBRIS CAUTION THAT NASCAR DIDN’T CALL

Earnhardt had cut a tire on debris that many believed came from a broken bell housing on Geoff Bodine’s car. Cope, Elliott and Labonte all picked up some of the same debris.

Cope came over the radio on the cool down lap, saying he had a problem that he had never experienced in his career.

“He don’t know where Victory Lane is,” Parrott laughed on the live TV broadcast that day.

Moments later, it was Cope’s turn to tell the world what it felt to win Daytona. When asked if he could believe what he had just accomplished, Cope deadpanned: “Absolutely not in my wildest dreams. You always come back here with optimism. This is the one that that eludes everybody. Darrell Waltrip did it last year for the first time in his career. It’s a pleasure to win this. It’s a dream come true.”

TO THE VICTOR GOES THE SPOILS

For the rest of that afternoon and late into the evening, Cope was the toast of Daytona.

The next morning, as he prepared to fly home – on a commercial airliner – it finally sank in to Cope about what he had achieved.

“Back then, the airplanes were outside [at Daytona Beach International Airport] and you had to walk outside and up the ladder to get to the doorway,” he said. “I remember standing at the top of the stairs and looking back over towards the Speedway with some fondness of what had just happened.

“We got on, sat down and then there was an announcement: ‘We want to congratulate Derrike Cope, the Daytona 500 winner is onboard.’ And then we flew home. That’s how it went.”

He’d go on to appear on “Late Night with David Letterman,” did a whirlwind media tour around his native Pacific Northwest, and then it was back to business: Richmond was coming up the following weekend.

THE DAYTONA DOWNSIDE

Cope desperately wanted to prove he was no one-hit wonder and would do that 10 races later when he and his team won at Dover – the second and, ultimately, last win in his 409-race Cup career. He’d go on to finish 18th in the standings that season.

“The most difficult part is so many people said that we were a fluke at Daytona,” Cope said. “I felt bad for all the guys on the team. They were all young. I felt bad that nobody really gave us a great deal of respect after that.

“Fortunately, we were able to go on to win at Dover to solidify the fact we really could win and to win on another racetrack. And then years later on, we had good rides with Bobby Allison Motorsports and ran really well, had a pole at Charlotte and some other things.

“When you win something of that magnitude and to have a lot of detractors, that made it a little bit difficult for all of us, I think, for a period of time.”

TWENTY-FIVE YEARS LATER

Cope is now 56 years old. His Daytona 500 trophy still sits high and proud as his office’s centerpiece, and he still wears his champion’s ring from time to time.

“Yes, I will wear the ring [this week in Daytona],” he said with a chuckle.

Cope is still racing, although the Xfinity Series is now his home. Last year marked the first time in several years that he attempted to run the entire season, starting 28 of 33 events.

source: Getty Images
Derrike Cope is still racing these days. He’ll compete in Saturday’s Xfinity Series season opener at Daytona International Speedway. (Getty Images)

Much like last season, Cope hopes to make it through the first five to 10 races of 2015 and pick up additional funding to get through the rest of the season.

There’s a sense of irony that while Jeff Gordon will be 44 when he completes his final Sprint Cup season, Cope has no plans of stopping anytime soon.

“I just love driving a race car, just have a great deal of passion for it,” he said. “I don’t have anything else that really excites me in any way, shape or form other than this.

“I just feel like I’m going to do all I can for as long as I can, and when I’ve exhausted every avenue and we reach out and no one will let me do anything more or I don’t feel like doing it anymore, then I’ll be able to sit back and put a [fishing] pole in the water or go play a little golf or do what I need to do.”

Cope will mark the 25th anniversary of his Daytona 500 win today fairly quietly. There won’t be any major celebration or anniversary parties of sorts.

Still, unless you’re one of the few to have ever won the biggest race in NASCAR, you will never quite know what Cope feels every year around this time.

“I’m very fortunate to have been able to win the biggest thing that could happen to you in the sport,” Cope said. “You really realize it more now because a lot of your past competitors are retiring that haven’t won it or didn’t win it.”

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

RFK Racing, Trackhouse Racing, Hendrick Motorsports announce sponsors

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RFK Racing, Trackhouse Racing and Hendrick Motorsports each announced primary sponsorship deals Monday.

King’s Hawaiian, which served as a primary sponsor in three races last year, returns to RFK Racing and Brad Keselowski’s No. 6 car this year. King’s Hawaiian will expand its role and be a primary sponsor for nine races. 

The first race with the sponsor will be this weekend’s Busch Light Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. King’s Hawaiian also will be the primary sponsor on Keselowski’s car for Atlanta (March 19), Bristol Dirt (April 9), Kansas (May 7), World Wide Technology Raceway (June 4), Sonoma (June 11), Pocono (July 23), Daytona (Aug. 26) and Martinsville (Oct. 29).

Jockey returns to sponsor the Trackhouse cars of Ross Chastain and Daniel Suarez for three races each this season with its Made in America Collection.

Jockey will be on the No. 99 car for Suarez at this weekend’s Busch Light Clash, the Bristol Dirt Race (April 9) and  Martinsville (Oct. 29).

Chastain’s No. 1 car will have Jockey as the primary sponsor at Richmond (April 2), Dover (April 30) and Michigan (Aug. 6).

Hooters returns to Hendrick Motorsports and will be the primary sponsor on the No. 9 car of Chase Elliott for the Bristol Dirt Race (April 9), the Chicago street course event (July 2) and Homestead-Miami Speedway (Oct. 22).

Toyota has ‘irons in the fire’ for expanding its lineup in NASCAR Cup Series for 2024

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Toyota Racing Development is making a renewed push to expand its lineup in the NASCAR Cup Series, and president David Wilson is optimistic about adding new teams for 2024.

“We’ve got some good irons in the fire now,” Wilson told NBC Sports last weekend at Daytona International Speedway. “What was once a very effective strategy to amass our resources across fewer cars, with the marginalization of the areas that we have to play in and the flattening out of the playing field, we definitely need some more help.”

When TRD entered NASCAR’s premier series as a fourth manufacturer 16 years ago, the target was fielding roughly a quarter of the 43-car field. But Toyota’s Cup fleet always has remained in the single digits even as NASCAR shrunk to three manufacturers and a 40-car field.

Last year, there were six full-time Camrys in Cup between Joe Gibbs Racing (four) and 23XI Racing (two). Wilson said “nine to 10 cars is probably our sweet spot with this new car.”

Over the past two years, TRD has talked to teams within NASCAR and at least two potential car owners who had yet to enter racing. Wilson declined to say if Toyota now is focused on existing or new teams but did rule out a Chevrolet or Ford anchor team such as Hendrick Motorsports or Team Penske.

“We’re talking to a lot of the incumbents,” Wilson told NBC Sports. “It’s a very dynamic time right now. If you’re a team, you want to have an association with a manufacturer. Again, even in spite of the new car, the flattening of the playing field, there’s still something about having an alliance and partnership. The good news is there’s a lot of interest. The bad news is you don’t have to worry about Penske or Hendrick.

“So what’s interesting from a fan standpoint, what’s going to continue to drive interest in our sport is the trajectory of some of the smaller organizations. The Tier 2 or 3 and how they get better. And that’s good for the sport, because as we saw last year, the number of teams that won, the number of drivers that won was historically unprecedented.”

The Next Gen made its debut in NASCAR last year with the goal of reducing costs through standardization of the chassis and parts supplied by single-source vendors while also reducing development expenses. While primarily intended to introduce a more cost-effective team business model, the Next Gen also delivered a new era of competitiveness in its inaugural season. The 2022 season tied a modern-era record with 19 race winners, and the Championship 4 breakthrough by Trackhouse Racing (with Ross Chastain) was indicative of a new crop of teams able to contend outside of the traditional powerhouses.

Wilson also believes the Next Gen should allow TRD to pursue more teams without breaking the bank.

“My budget doesn’t extrapolate with added cars, so it’s a matter of allocating the same resource across more cars and not taking away from your current effort,” Wilson said. “But again, that’s more doable now because we’re much more constrained with our wind tunnel time as an example. That’s a resource that we pay, a number of dollars per hour, and NASCAR continues to trim that back. It wouldn’t surprise me in a couple of years if there is no wind tunnel other than for body submissions purposes. They’re being very intentional and thoughtful about trying to keep coming back into areas where the team feel they have to spend or OEMs feel they have to spend.”

Manufacturer investment remains important, though, and Wilson takes some solace (while also gritting his teeth) about the impact Toyota has made in NASCAR.

After a rough debut in 2007, TRD added Joe Gibbs Racing in 2008 and also opened a technical center in Salisbury, North Carolina, that helped drive its approach of getting its teams to work closely together.

It’s been an approach adopted by Ford and Chevrolet over the past decade. Ford opened its tech center in Concord several years ago, and General Motors opened a new 130,000-square-foot performance and tech center last year (just down the road from Hendrick Motorsports headquarters) with NASCAR operations overseen by Dr. Eric Warren.

“To suggest that we don’t have areas to work in, all you have to do is look at the monstrosity that General Motors has built in Concord,” Wilson said. “I haven’t been invited to tour it yet, but I have talked to some folks that have been through, and hats off to Eric and the guys there. They’re investing significant resources. Can’t say that I’m not a little envious.

“We cut the ribbon (on the Salisbury facility) in 2008, and it seems like just yesterday. What I love about this world or what I hate about it, if you’re not constantly moving forward, you’re falling behind. I love it that our competitors are re-evaluating how they participate. Not that they’re following our lead, but when we came in the sport, we were the only ones doing it this way. Getting our hands dirty and really participating is material to the return on that investment. I’m glad that there are others doing the same thing, but it does cause us to look forward and look at what we need to do to make sure that we remain competitive.

“It’s competition. It makes all of us better, and I like that side of it. That’s a microcosm of the greater automotive industry. When Toyota came to this country, ultimately we helped the competition indirectly get better because they had something different to compete against. That’s kind of fun.”

Wilson was at Daytona International Speedway last weekend to watch Vasser Sullivan’s No. 14 Lexus finish third in the GTD Pro category of the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

Surveying key race dates for the 2023 Cup season

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NASCAR Cup Series cars will fire up again Feb. 5 as the 2023 season begins with the Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum in Los Angeles.

Two weeks later, the regular season opens with the Feb. 19 Daytona 500, for decades the curtain-raiser for the Cup Series’ 10-month cross-country marathon.

With only a single week break in mid-June, the Cup schedule visits familiar stops like Darlington, Bristol, Martinsville, Talladega and Dover but adds two new locations that should be highlights of the year — North Wilkesboro and Chicago.

Here’s a look at key races for each month of the season:

February — With all due respect to the unique posture of the Clash at the Coliseum (Feb. 5) and the apparent final race on the 2-mile track at Auto Club Speedway (Feb. 26) before it’s converted to a half-mile track, the Daytona 500 won’t be surpassed as a February highlight. Since the winter of 1959, the best stock car racers in the land have gathered on the Atlantic shore to brighten the winter, and the results often are memorable. Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt, David Pearson, Cale Yarborough, Jeff Gordon and so many others have starred on Daytona’s high ground, and sometimes even rookies shine (see Austin Cindric’s victory last year).

MORE: Friday 5: Legacy aiming for breakout season

March — The newly reconfigured Atlanta Motor Speedway saw its racing radically changed last year with higher banks and straights that are tighter. The track now is considered more in the Daytona/Talladega superspeedway “family” than an intermediate speedway, generating a bit of the unknown for close pack racing. William Byron and Chase Elliott won at AMS last year.

April — Ah, the return to Martinsville (April 16). Despite the rumors, Ross Chastain’s wild last-lap charge in last October’s Martinsville race did not destroy the speedway. Will somebody try to duplicate Chastain’s move this time? Not likely, but no one expected what he did, either.

May — North Wilkesboro Speedway is back. Abandoned by NASCAR in 1996, the track’s revival reaches its peak May 21 when the Cup All-Star Race comes to town, putting Cup cars on one of stock car racing’s oldest tracks for the first time in a quarter century.

June — The June 11 Sonoma road course race will end 17 consecutive weeks of racing for the Cup Series. The schedule’s only break is the following weekend, with racing resuming June 25 at Nashville Superspeedway. Sonoma last year opened the door for the first Cup win by Daniel Suarez.

July — The July holiday weekend will offer one of the biggest experiments in the history of NASCAR. For the first time, Cup cars will race through the streets of a major city, in this case Chicago on July 2. If the race is a success, similar events could follow on future schedules.

August — The Aug. 26 race at Daytona is the final chance for drivers to qualify for the playoffs, ratcheting up the tension of the late-summer race considerably.

September — The Cup playoffs open with the Southern 500, making Darlington Raceway a key element in determining which drivers have easier roads in advancing to the next round.

October — The Oct. 29 Martinsville race is the last chance to earn a spot in the Championship Four with a race victory. Christopher Bell did it last year in a zany finish.

November — Phoenix. The desert. Four drivers, four cars and four teams for the championship.

 

Trackhouse Racing picks up additional sponsorship from Kubota

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Trackhouse Racing announced Friday that it has picked up additional sponsorship for drivers Ross Chastain and Daniel Suarez from Kubota Tractor Corp. for the 2023 season.

Kubota sponsored Chastain’s No. 1 Chevrolet last October at Homestead-Miami Speedway. It is expanding its sponsorship to six races for the new season.

Chastain will race with Kubota sponsorship at Auto Club Speedway, Phoenix Raceway, New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Kansas Speedway and Homestead-Miami. Suarez’s Chevrolet will carry Kubota livery at Texas Motor Speedway.

MORE: Friday 5: Legacy seeks breakout year in 2023

The team also announced that a $10,000 donation will be made to Farmer Veteran Coalition for each Kubota-sponsored race in which Chastain finishes in the top 10. The FVC assists military veterans and current armed services members who have an interest in farming.

“The sponsorship from Kubota is especially meaningful to me because it allows me to use my platform to shine a bright light on agriculture and on the men and women who work so hard to feed all of us,” said Chastain, whose family owns a Florida watermelon farm.