Thirty years after his shocking Daytona 500 triumph, 62-year-old Derrike Cope looks forward to next weekend’s season-opening race and what he admits likely will be his final Cup start.
And for those who think he’s too old to compete in the Daytona 500 — he’ll be more than 15 years older than any other competitor in the field — or concerned that he’ll be running his first NASCAR race since 2018, he has a message:
“I really don’t care what other people think,” Cope said Friday in a Zoom session with reporters. “If I did, I probably wouldn’t be in this position. So, honestly, it’s really about what I want.”
He wants to race.
Cope’s ride has a charter, guaranteeing him a spot in the Feb. 14 race.
He’s set to become the second-oldest driver to compete in the Daytona 500. Mark Thompson was 66 years old when he drove in the 2018 Daytona 500. He finished 22nd.
The only other driver age 60 or older to start the Daytona 500 is Dave Marcis. He was 60 when he made his record 33rd Daytona 500 start in 2002. Marcis finished 42nd after an engine issue.
Morgan Shepherd failed to qualify for the 2014 Daytona 500 at age 72. He later ran two Cup races that season.
Cope said age is not a concern for him.
“Going to a place like Daytona, certainly I think is a lot more mental and understanding the air and what type of runs, what type of surges the car will get, assessing your car, making good conscious decisions, driving within yourself,” he said. “That’s the biggest thing. I think we obviously have a lot of guys that don’t do that.
“I don’t have to prove anything. I don’t have to go down there and worry about anything. I will just go down there and have fun and race the car and hopefully get to 180 laps (of the 200-lap race) before I have to go to battle.”
Cope won a dramatic Daytona 500 in 1990. Dale Earnhardt led when he cut a tire in Turn 3, allowing Cope to race by for his first career Cup win.
“Afterwards we spoke,” Cope said of a conversation with Earnhardt sometime later. “I said, ‘Look, I hope you do win this thing because it was life-changing. You’ve obviously done so much in the sport, but I really want you to experience it and hope that you can.’ He said, ‘I hope I do.’ ’’
That victory continues to resonate for Cope, who will make his 15th Daytona 500 start but first since 2004.
“After you win it, you feel you can go back and win it again,” he said. “Every time you go there, you feel that way. I still feel that way.”
Cope followed his Daytona 500 win with a victory later in that 1990 season at Dover. Those are his only two Cup wins in 427 career starts.
Next weekend, he says, likely will put a bow on his NASCAR driving career. It began in 1982 when he made his Cup debut at Riverside International Raceway. He finished 36th in a race that had eight future NASCAR Hall of Fame members and four more who are among those nominated.
Cope, team manager for StarCom Racing, is getting this last chance because StarCom Racing’s owners and his wife put the deal together, he said, that “I wasn’t privy to. … It was a gift. I’m looking forward to it. I’ve loved Daytona. I felt like that if I was going to end things I’d like to be doing it there.”
Cope said he understands how much the sport has changed through the years and is confident he can match how drivers race now.
“This sport is very aggressive right now,” he said. “You’ve got a lot of young kids who really have no regard for pretty much anything, except getting to the finish line and winning. You know what? The way I feel like is I’m not really going to worry about pretty much anything. I feel like that I understand the air as good as anyone.
“I will go to Daytona and if I do make it to the end … and be in a position to race hard, they’ll know I’m there. The one thing I have always done is I’m not afraid of anything. I’m not afraid of mixing it up. I’m not afraid of pushing and shoving. I’m not afraid of wrecking.
“Bottom line is if they want to play, we’ll play. That’s just the way I look at. I’ve got one shot at this thing. When it’s all said and done, you know what, I can walk away and get to the airplane and say ‘I had a lot of fun today and sorry you guys got wrecked.’”