In 1990 Derrike Cope Achieved The Biggest Upset In Daytona 500 History

Derrike Cope earned what has been described as the greatest upset in Daytona 500 history when he beat Dale Earnhardt in 1990. Cope still competes today, mostly on the Nationwide Series.

“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.

In 1990 Cope drove a Chevrolet sponsored by Purolator and owned by Bob Whitcomb. It was in this car that Cope won two victories that year, at Daytona and Dover.

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.”

Parrott laughed.

“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.

 

Cope Admits 500 Victory Gives Him Some Clout

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Because NASCAR dramatically changed eligibility requirements for the Budweiser Shootout, old-line driver Derrike Cope, and some others, were afforded what Cope called “a golden opportunity.”

The special event used to be reserved only for pole winners from the previous season. But in 2011, NASCAR expanded the eligibility requirements. One of them declared that past Daytona 500 winners could compete in the Shootout.

Cope is one of them. He raced in the Shootout in Larry Gunselman’s Toyota and finished 14th of the 14 cars remaining in the race.

Cope was eligible for the Shootout because he was the winner of the 1990 Daytona 500 in one of the most improbable finishes in the race’s history.

Dale Earnhardt, at that time winless in the 500 although he had earned victories in every other race at Daytona International Speedway, was leading the last lap in Richard Childress’ Chevrolet.

Everyone believed he was at last destined for victory.
Cope, driving for the fledgling Bob Whitcomb Racing team, also in a Chevrolet, ran second. It was going to be a good day for him.
It got better.

As the two cars sped down the backstretch, Earnhardt suddenly slowed and drifted low on the track – allowing Cope to pass. Something was wrong.

Cope, as stunned as everyone in attendance, had only to keep all four wheels on the track to secure the victory.
Earnhardt suffered a cut tire after he ran over a piece of bell housing. Cruel fate had denied him again.

Dutifully, the media reported Cope’s victory. But not one of them thought it was anything less than a fluke – even though Cope, in second place, had run very well.

Earnhardt probably received more attention than Cope simply because the man known as “The Intimidator” had failed to win the Daytona 500 – again.

Cope was in only his third full year of Sprint Cup competition when he won the 500. Later in the year he won at Dover, which was not a fluke.

Those are the only two victories of Cope’s career.
He hasn’t raced full-time, or something close to it, on the Cup circuit since 1998.

But he still races now and then. And, except for a three-year period from 2006-2008 during which he didn’t compete, he’s always shown up for the Daytona 500.

However, the last time he actually drove in the race was in 2004. It’s been rough going since. He failed to qualify three times, in 2005, 2009 and last season.
He’ll try again this year, again in Gunselman’s Toyota.

The fact that he’s continued to simply find rides, much less race, amazes some. They reason he’s gotten a lot of mileage out of his Daytona 500 victory.

Cope heartily agrees. He believes that any driver with a 500 victory has some power – bargaining and otherwise – that can produce benefits.

“Well, it got me to this dance (the Shootout) didn’t it?” Cope said. “You bring a lot to the table when you put ‘Daytona 500 winner’ next to your name.

“It indicates competitiveness and the ability to perform at racing’s highest level. So when you are in a boardroom, applying for some money, it’s the kind of thing that can put you right back at Daytona, so that’s a good thing.

“And you can keep racing here and there.”

Over the years Cope has established a successful shock absorber shop and has been a television commentator. He’s also run some Nationwide Series races.

Starting at Daytona, he’s scheduled to do so again in Jay Robinson’s cars.
So he keeps on racing.

Since Cope is now 52 years old, that he keeps on truckin’ begs the question, why?

“I physically love to drive a race car,” Cope said. “At places like Daytona, Talladega, Michigan, Atlanta and Charlotte – the fast places – the speed is just the draw for me.

“You get challenges like the one here at Daytona with the new pavement. That’s just another aspect you want to experience. You want to absorb everything you can while you can.”

So when does Cope cease the absorption process? It’s not likely to be soon.

“Mark Martin and I talked last night,” Cope said. “And we agreed we aren’t going to let anyone else dictate to us when we should retire.
“We are going to keep doing this as long as we want to keep doing it. We are going to absorb it for as long as we can.

“And, when it comes time to make that conscious decision, then that’s when we’ll do it.”
Looks like Cope is going to put a few more miles on that 1990 Daytona 500 victory.

The Shootout Likely Won’t Go Away Soon

Recently I had the privilege of being on Sirius Radio with Dave Ross and Buddy Baker. One of the topics of conversation was qualifying. Specifically, the guys said no one seems to be interested in it any longer and was there a way to get more fans to attend?

One suggestion was that perhaps it would be good for the pole winner to receive championship points. That might provide some motivation for the competitors and give fans a reason to go to the track.

In days gone by drivers had motivation. A pole winner earned the right to compete in the Budweiser Shootout at Daytona International Speedway the next season. That meant more money, sponsorship exposure and track time in an “all-star” event.

I can’t tell you how many times an excited pole-winning driver said, “Hey, we made the Shootout!” in his post-qualifying interviews.

The Shootout began as the Busch Clash in 1979. Because it was open to pole winners only fields were usually small. In 1981, for example, there were only seven cars on the grid.

Few complained, however. It was considered an elite event open to those who had to earn their way into the field.
But things changed when Anheuser Busch brought an end to its Bud Pole program, which, of course, meant that the format for the Shootout’s starting lineup had to be changed.

For a time drivers representing the four manufacturers were selected for the Shootout. But Dodge dropped to only three teams and the method had to be scrapped.

It was recently announced that eligibility for the Shootout has changed again – and it’s the most convoluted ever.
The field will consist of the drivers in the top 12 in the 2010 point standings, past Sprint Cup champions, past Shootout winners, past winners of the Daytona 500 and the Coke Zero 400 and the Sprint Cup Rookies of the Year from 2000-2010. Whew!

Given these eligibility requirements the starting lineup for the Shootout will be sizable, perhaps as many as 30 cars.
But at the same time there are eligible drivers who either don’t have rides – John Andretti, for example – or who are not

currently competing in Sprint Cup racing – among them Sterling Marlin, Geoff Bodine, Ken Schrader and Derrike Cope.
It seems to be a bit a stretch, doesn’t it?

I understand – at least I think I do – what NASCAR is attempting. By enlarging the Shootout field with drivers who have, under the criteria, earned their way in is an effort to make the race interesting, not to mention more appealing for fans, whose favorite drivers are almost certain to be competing. Yep, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is one of them.

It’s been suggested that the Shootout be scrapped. It’s an exhibition event that clutters a season that runs from February to November. Many have already said the Sprint Cup schedule needs to be shortened. So why not do so with the elimination of a meaningless race?

Point well made, but it’s not going to happen.
The Shootout will certainly remain as long as Budweiser forks over the sponsorship money.
Let’s face it, the drivers aren’t going to complain about a chance to earn additional income, get more track time at Daytona and the opportunity to score bragging rights.

And I suspect NASCAR believes it can’t lure fans by taking something away from them.
Yes, the Sprint Cup schedule needs to be shortened and that’s going to take imaginative thinking. Lopping off points races won’t happen because tracks – and NASCAR – need the income. But there may come a day when we see races run during the middle of the week.

And there may also come a day when the Shootout is eliminated, something some have said should happen quickly.
As I’ve said, point well made. But I think it’s more likely to happen later than sooner.

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