“Even after all the passing years, I can close my eyes and still feel the sun shining warmly on my face in Victory Lane,” Derrike Cope often recalls.
And even after the passage of 22 years, I still hardly can believe the sight that unfolded on Feb. 18, 1990, at Daytona International Speedway for millions of eyes to see.
With only a mile to go in the Daytona 500, leader Dale Earnhardt, who had dominated NASCAR’s most important race, suddenly, stunningly slowed.
Cope, running a close second on the 200th lap at the storied 2.5-mile Florida track, swept by Earnhardt’s faltering car and took first place. The journeyman driver then held off former Sprint Cup champions Terry Labonte and Bill Elliott by mere feet in a dash to the checkered flag.
A crowd estimated at 150,000 and a national television audience watched in shock.
Ricky Rudd followed in fourth place and then, limping to the line in fifth, came Earnhardt.
Among some, Cope widely remains rated the biggest surprise winner of a major event in all of motorsports history.
Cope, 31 at the time, indirectly conceded to that during the Victory Lane proceedings.
“I absolutely can’t believe it,” he said in the celebratory moments immediately after his first Cup triumph. “Not in my wildest dreams … this is a once-in-a-lifetime thing.
“Dale had dominated all race long and there was no way I was going to pass him. As the last lap began I was trying just to beat Terry and Bill for second place.
“Then, Dale had a tire suddenly go down and he slowed up. A bunch of stuff was coming from under his car. The tire was shredding. He did a heck of a job holding onto the car.”
While roaring down the backstretch, Earnhardt had run over a sharp piece of bell housing that had fallen off a lapped car.
“I hit some debris right in front of the chicken-bone grandstands,” said Earnhardt, referring to the cheaper-priced seats. “I heard a piece of it hit the bottom of the car and then hit the right-rear, and the tire popped.
“You can’t see all that stuff on the track in time to miss it. I was just sitting there in complete control. None of them could have got by me.”
Earnhardt, driving a Chevrolet Lumina fielded by Richard Childress Racing, had led 155 laps, 146 more than anyone else. He once rolled to a whopping advantage of 30 seconds, leading the Motor Racing Network anchor Eli Gold to say, “Dale is in another area code.”
Indeed, Earnhardt looked to be home free to win the Daytona 500 for the first time in a career that by then had produced 39 victories and three Cup championships.
However, on the 193rd lap, a rival’s spin forced a yellow flag. All the frontrunners pitted except Cope and Bobby Hillin. Earnhardt stopped and took on four tires.
When the restart came on Lap 196, the running order was Cope, Hillin, Earnhardt, Labonte and Elliott.
Earnhardt immediately powered back into the lead. Cope, also driving a Chevrolet, was able to hang onto Earnhardt’s bumper in the draft, staying in position should there be a miracle for him or a disaster for Dale.
There were both: That metal shard that punctured the tire on Earnhardt’s famous black No. 3 Chevrolet.
“Dale moved up about a half lane,” continued Cope. “I figured that him slowing so suddenly was going to cause a big chain-reaction pile-up in the third turn. I was waiting for someone to hit me.
“When that didn’t happen, I just turned that baby of mine left and said, ‘Please stick!’ ”
Cope’s No. 10 Chevy owned by Bob Whitcomb held traction.
But his crew, led by colorful veteran crew chief Buddy Parrott, didn’t know that. It couldn’t see the third turn from pit road.
“I’ve been in racing a long time and I thought I had developed an ear for crowd reactions,” said Parrott. “When I heard the screams and saw the fans jumping around, I hung my head.
“I said to myself, ‘Well, I guess we wrecked.’ Then I saw that red-and-white car of ours coming down the track, and before I knew it the boys on our team were pounding on me in excitement.”
“I’ve always wanted to go out on top, so I want to announce my retirement. … Nah, I’m going to stick around to enjoy this. It’s truly quite a deal.”
While the Whitcomb team rejoiced, Earnhardt and his crew coped in the garage area with deep disappointment.
“We outrun ‘em all day,” said Earnhardt, who had remained in his car for a bit to compose himself. “They didn’t beat us. They lucked into it.
“But give Derrike credit. He ran a good race. He was sitting there poised to win if something happened. I can’t believe it did happen, but you never take anything for granted in racing. I never thought I had it in the bag. At the end, I was just counting off the corners.”
He never got to count the last two, at least not as the leader.
“What a heartbreaker,” said Childress. “We’ve come close in this race the last few years and had something happen to deny us right near the finish. But this one really stings.
“I’m sure all of us are going to be sick a couple times tonight.”
Childress revealed that the culprit – the piece of metal that cut the tire – had been retrieved and given to him.
“Waddell Wilson (Rudd’s crew chief) found the thing,” said Childress. “It had bounced up off the track and stuck in the radiator of Ricky’s car.”
Cope also was to receive a piece of the broken bell housing a bit later. He had run over the debris, too, cutting a tire in three places so deeply it likely wouldn’t have held together another lap.
During the victor’s interview in the press box, Cope remained humbled.
“I know you folks are stunned,” he said. “I’m stunned.
“I’m not exactly a big name in this sport. I’ll admit before anyone that I have a long way to go. I need a lot more experience.”
The fabulous feat by such a long shot drew attention far beyond the realm of NASCAR followers.
Telegrams poured in from all over, including one from Joao Pereira Bastos, then Portugal’s ambassador to the United States. Cope has some Portuguese-Cherokee ancestry through his mother, the late Delores Marie Azevado Cope.
Said the ambassador’s wire: “I salute the Portuguese in you and claim part of your success on behalf of the country of your ancestors. Portugal was once second to none on the high seas. I am glad that it is now winning on the race track.”
No NASCAR driver ever has been honored similarly.
“It’s overwhelming,” Cope said at the time. “I’m extremely thankful.”
But for a knee injury Cope sustained, Portugal might have been praising him for playing pro baseball instead of driving a race car.
As a catcher at Whitman College in 1978 in Washington State, where he grew up, Cope was considered a top prospect.
“My dream of signing a contract was lost when I blew out my left knee in a collision at home plate,” said Cope.
Cope then turned to motorsports. He made his first Cup start at California’s old Riverside Raceway road course in 1982. He made a brief run for rookie of the year in ’87.
He secured a regular ride in ’88, but listed only 48 big-time starts prior to going to Daytona in 1990. He had a single top-five finish and 12 more in the top-10.
He’d started the Daytona 500 just twice previously. This caused whispers that his win was a “fluke.”
Cope quieted that on June 3, 1990, when he impressively made up a lost lap to triumph again, mounting a charge to take the Budweiser 500 at the demanding Dover track.
Cope appeared to be on his way. But the victory in Delaware proved to be his last in the Cup Series.
He triumphed in what is now the Nationwide Series in 1994, his last checkered flag.
Even so, Cope motors on.
He is entered in Saturday’s Nationwide event, the Drive For COPD 300, in a No. 73 Chevrolet fielded by Dave Fuge, Gary Keller and Dale Clemons.
The Earnhardt story now is legend. He continued as a championship contender and winner well into the 1990s. But victory in the Daytona 500 eluded him despite repeated strong runs.
Finally, in 1998, after 20 years of trying, Earnhardt dramatically captured the Daytona trophy that he wanted more than any other.
Just three years later Earnhardt, a winner of 76 races and a record-tying seven championships, lost his life in a crash on the last lap of the Daytona 500.
Many fans rank Earnhardt’s stirring triumph in 1998 as the great race’s most memorable, a standing it could keep forever.
And Cope’s conquest of the Daytona 500? It will always rate among the 500’s biggest upsets.
Cope, a gentlemanly, gracious driver, undoubtedly will feel the Florida sun of Feb. 18, 1990, warm on his face forever.