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

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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

Kurt Busch seeks first Las Vegas win, but without hometown fans

Kurt Busch
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A win by Kurt Busch in tonight’s Cup race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (7 p.m. ET on NBCSN) couldn’t come under more bittersweet circumstances for the Chip Ganassi Racing driver.

Should Busch claim the victory on the 1.5-mile track, he’d go from being the last driver on the playoff grid (3,001 points entering the race) to the first driver to advance to the Round of 8.

While it would be his first victory of the year, it would also be his first NASCAR win at his home track in 23 starts across the Cup and Xfinity Series.

More: Stage points critical at Vegas

“The Vegas track has definitely been one of the tough ones for me over the years with results and finishes not where I would have expected them to be,” Busch said this week. “And the teams that I’ve raced for just have never quite found that right magic set-up or combination. And then for me, it’s a track that I just have that trouble with.

“There are a few tracks like Indianapolis and Martinsville; those are a few places where I struggle. And so with Vegas, I always put that little extra hometown pressure on myself and I would love to win there.”

The 42-year-old Las Vegas-native rolls off ninth on the 1.5-mile track. It’s his fourth while driving for Ganassi.

In his 21 Cup starts in Las Vegas, Busch’s best result is third in 2005 when he competed for Roush Fenway Racing. He has just one other top five. That came in last year’s spring race when he drove a throwback paint scheme to his 1999 NASCAR Southwest Series championship.

That day he led 23 laps. It was only the seventh time he’d led laps there and just the third time he’d totaled more than six laps led.

In February, Busch finished 25th.

If Busch were to finally make it to Vegas’ Victory Lane, the celebration would be somewhat muted.

It was announced last weekend that fans would not be allowed to attend the races at Las Vegas due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I would love to win through the spirit of the camera and everything on NBC Sports; and I know the fans there, local, will be watching and cheering on the Busch brothers,” Busch said. “So, that’s where I would connect. And hopefully do it through the TV side of it. We’ll get fans back one day and we’ll come back and race.”

Busch enters the Round of 12 having earned just one top 10 in the first round, an eighth-place finish at Darlington. He finished 13th at Richmond and 15th at Bristol.

“What I like is we have had better lap times at all three races so far compared to maybe the five or six races leading into the playoffs,” Busch said. “We know that our cushion is gone. We ended Bristol with 33 points to the good. And now we start Vegas minus four (points behind Austin Dillon in the cutoff spot). So that’s just part of the system and now we have to be perfect. We have to get every point possible that we’re able to get on our own at Vegas, Talladega, and the Roval. And, that should help us advance.”

Carolina Blue: Brad Daugherty and Michael Jordan bonded by NASCAR

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Brad Daugherty and Michael Jordan were teammates from 1982-84 at the University of North Carolina and Eastern Conference rivals throughout the 1980s and ’90s in the NBA.

But their friendship was about more than just hoops. While growing up on opposite ends of the Tar Heel State, Daugherty and Jordan both developed a passion for following NASCAR.

Tobacco Road meant fast cars and hard-driving heroes for these two North Carolina natives.

LIFELONG FAN: Michael Jordan explains why he’s partnering with Denny Hamlin

In a NASCAR on NBC feature, Daugherty recalls how NASCAR impacted his life and Jordan’s and led both into team ownership. Michael Jordan and Denny Hamlin announced they will form a team to field cars for Bubba Wallace next season.

Daughterty notes in the feature that Wallace “has led a dynamic transformation as NASCAR banned Confederate flags and recommitted to inclusion amidst times of great unrest. This is a huge moment for NASCAR, a cultural momentum shift. This is people of all colors coming together to create an all-American race team already with championship lineage.

“With proper funding, equipment and crewmembers, this will be the best chance ever for a Black driver to win – and while driving for a Black owner. An opportunity to shock the world like Muhammad Ali once did.”

Watch the feature above on Brad Daugherty and Michael Jordan or by clicking this link.

Las Vegas Xfinity results, driver points

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Chase Briscoe‘s victory Saturday night at Las Vegas Motor Speedway sends him into the next round of the Xfinity playoffs.

Noah Gragson led a 2-3-4 finish for JR Motorsports. Gragson was second and followed by Daniel Hemric and Justin Allgaier. Ryan Sieg finished fifth.

Briscoe dominated the race, leading 164 of the 200 laps.

Click here for Xfinity race results

POINTS

Ross Chastain finished 16th, last among the playoff drivers, and fell out of a transfer spot to the second round. He’s two points behind Harrison Burton for the final transfer spot. Michael Annett is 10 points behind Burton. Riley Herbst is 14 points behind Burton. Brandon Brown is 20 points behind Burton.

Click here for driver points report

Chase Briscoe scores 8th Xfinity win of year with Las Vegas triumph

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Chase Briscoe met a preseason goal of winning eight races with his victory in Saturday night’s Xfinity playoff opener at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Briscoe, who also won at Las Vegas in February, advances to the second round.

Briscoe dominated, winning both stages on the way to his second consecutive victory and eighth of the year. He led 164 of 200 laps.

“Awesome car,” Briscoe said on the radio of the car that also won at this 1.5-mile speedway earlier this year. “Can’t say enough, awesome car.”

Gragson said of Briscoe’s car on NBCSN: “Lot of race cars out here and one space shuttle.”

Las Vegas native Noah Gragson finished second and was followed by JR Motorsports teammates Daniel Hemric and Justin Allgaier. Ryan Sieg placed fifth.

Austin Cindric placed sixth and was followed by Michael Annett, Anthony Alfredo, Harrison Burton and Justin Haley.

Briscoe’s eight wins through 27 races ties him with Jack Ingram and Sam Ard for the most wins by non-Cup drivers through 27 races in a season. Ard and Ingram both did it in 1984. Briscoe’s eight wins ties him with Carl Edwards for most wins by a Ford driver in a season in the Xfinity Series. Edwards accomplished the feat in 2011.

“I knew this team was fully capable of achieving that and even more,” Briscoe told NBCSN of winning eight races this year. “I just can’t say thank you enough to Gene Haas and Tony Stewart and everyone that lets me drive these race cars. It has been an unbelievable season and we still have a lot, six more wins that we can try to get and a championship. That is what we are going to try to do. I am so happy to start the playoffs like this. After the last couple weeks we had, to go to Bristol and win and now here is a pretty good way to start our playoffs.”

The 25-year-old Briscoe does not know where he’ll run next season. He has a year left on his contract with Ford.

STAGE 1 WINNER: Chase Briscoe

STAGE 2 WINNER: Chase Briscoe

WHO HAD A GOOD RACE: Ryan Sieg’s fifth-place finish is his fifth top five of the season, the most he’s had in a season. … Runner-up Noah Gragson has finished in the top six in all four of his Xfinity Las Vegas starts. He did it by overcoming a bloody nose during the race. At one point, he put roll bar padding up his nose to clog it. … Daniel Hemric had finished 24th or worse in four of his last five starts before Saturday’s race. He finished third at Las Vegas.

WHO HAD A BAD RACE: Ross Chastain finished 16th, last among the playoff drivers. It’s his first finish outside the top 10 at a 1.5-mile speedway this season.

NEXT: The series races Oct. 3 at Talladega Superspeedway (4:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN) in the middle race of the opening round of the playoffs.