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