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.

 

Is 2011 The Year Of Gordon’s Redemption?

By this time many of us might have thought Jeff Gordon would have already won perhaps 100 races and matched Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt with seven career Sprint Cup championships.

After all, he averaged over eight wins per season during the first five years of his career and, at one time, was so singular in his performances on the track that many thought he might well eclipse anything NASCAR has ever known.

Think of it. From 1994, just one season after he first competed on the full schedule with Hendrick Motorsports, until 1998, Gordon won a remarkable 42 races and three championships. In the year he did not win a title, 1996, he finished second to Hendrick teammate Terry Labonte.

He was so astonishing on the tracks, and at such a tender young age, he earned the nickname “Wonder Boy,” given to him by the late Dale Earnhardt. Don’t think Gordon was overly fond of it.

I remember Gordon’s unheralded debut in Atlanta in the fall of 1992. It was the race in which Petty made his last career start and Alan Kulwicki ultimately won the championship by 10 points over Bill Elliott, the closest margin in NASCAR history. Gordon finished 31st.

I also remember the first time I saw Gordon away from the track. It was at a cocktail party in downtown Charlotte thrown by Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Tom Higgins, then with the Charlotte Observer, and I were standing at one of the many bars. A baby-faced Gordon, with his wispy moustache, walked in somewhat wide-eyed.

He stepped up to the bar and ordered a Coke – as you might expect. When served he asked, “How much?”

Higgins and I knew we had just seen someone who had never been invited to a cocktail party.

“There’s no charge,” we said.
“Good evening, Mr. Waid and Mr. Higgins,” Gordon said.
“Son, Mr. Higgins is my father,” Higgins said. “Call me Tom. This is Steve.”

At that time, which was well before Gordon made his victory and championship runs, neither of us had any idea of what he would achieve – or did anyone else, for that matter.

As Gordon accomplished what he did during the first half-dozen years of his career some fans grew to resent him.

They felt he was a driver simply handed everything needed to succeed. He hooked up with one of NASCAR’s best teams, armed with top equipment and personnel. Anyone with a modicum of talent, they said, could win in such a situation. He was a driver who had a silver spoon shoved into his mouth. He never paid his dues.

This is balderdash, of course.

Gordon’s talents were honed from the time he was barely able to walk. With the guidance of his family he raced open-wheel and Sprint Cars all across the country – and very successfully.

It was only after team owner Rick Hendrick, who has always had an eye for talent, saw him drive the wheels off a Nationwide Series car that Gordon got his break to enter the top echelon of NASCAR.

Let’s move forward in time. Gordon is now 38 years old. He hasn’t been called “Wonder Boy” in years. He’s an established NASCAR star. He won his fourth, and to date last, title in 2001.

But as quickly as his career soared early it has since fallen back to earth.

Other than in 2007, when he won six races and finished second in the Chase, his career has been far less productive than it once was. He didn’t make the Chase in 2005. His last victory came at Texas in the spring of 2009, which means he’s won just once since 2008.

Mired in a victory drought, Gordon undoubtedly views the 2011 season as one of redemption. He’ll compete with a new crew chief, Alan Gustafson, who came aboard after an off-season Hendrick shuffle. Gustafson was formerly Mark Martin’s pit boss.
Gordon hopes to find chemistry with Gustafson but nothing is guaranteed.

Gordon also feels there is nothing seriously wrong with his team. It doesn’t need sweeping change. He thinks with some small alterations; some tweaking, it will get better. And he knows it needs to be. The competition is stronger than ever.

Gordon maintains age has not diminished his skills nor has fatherhood dulled his competitiveness. He feels he still wants to win as strongly as he did in his youth.

But, as he said during the Sprint Cup Media Tour, he can’t make things better by himself – nor can his crew chief.

“We have to capitalize on opportunities to get wins, to create chemistry and confidence and keep that going all year long,” Gordon said. “That’s going to take teamwork.”

There was a time when we’d never hear those words from Gordon. But things change.
And every top driver has gone through a slump. The great ones break out of it.
It’s very likely Gordon looks at 2011 as his chance to do just that.

At The NMPA Hall Of Fame The True Message Was Delivered

This time, at the National Motorsports Press Association’s Hall of Fame ceremony on Jan. 22, it seemed everyone realized what it is all about.

The capacity crowd at the Hilton in Charlotte seemed to recognize, and appreciate, those from NASCAR’s past, their contributions to the sport and their suggestions that what happened years ago helped bring the sport to what it is now.

In other words, they got it.
There were many times they didn’t. They would socialize, have dinner, listen to a few speeches, offer cursory applause and leave.
But this year they were enraptured by the words they heard; by the messages they were sent. I believe they left with a keener sense of days gone by and the contributions of men who competed when racing was far more a sport than a corporate entity.

I think much of that was a result of the inductees, and others, who spoke so passionately – not about themselves or their accomplishments, but about how they lived, played, worked and shared in a bygone era.

The inductees were Dale Jarrett, the 1999 NASCAR Winston Cup champion and winner of 32 races, including three Daytona 500s and two Brickyard 400s.

Waddell Wilson, the long-time engine builder and crew chief whose cars won 109 races, 123 poles and three championships.
Tom Higgins, who covered motorsports for the Charlotte Observer for nearly 40 years and is the winner of too many writing awards to mention. He is also the recipient of the NASCAR Award of Excellence.

All of them did much more than say a string of “thank yous.” They told tales. They verbally painted pictures of the past. They told everyone how it was during a time when you worked hard, didn’t make much money and yet shared with rivals.

A couple of them spoke at great length, which in the past could have had folks nodding off or heading for the door. Not this time.
“I could have sat there all night long and listened to those stories,” said Ford’s Dan Zacharias. He wasn’t alone.
The erudite Kyle Petty, who inducted Wilson, stressed, that while Wilson the man deserved the honor for his accomplishments, he did so much more.

“You have to understand what he brought to others and the sport itself,” Petty said. “He was a teacher. He brought innovation to racing. His skills made those who worked for him, and others, better. He helped grow racing, which today, without men like Waddell Wilson, wouldn’t be what it is.”

Jarrett gave an example of that.
“When Waddell would be testing with his teams he would invite me to join them when I had a Busch Series team,” he said. “I didn’t have to pay a cent.

“Whatever he could do for me, he did. I learned so much from him. He didn’t have to do that.”
Wilson, always shy of attention, admitted he never thought the day would come when he would enter a hall of fame.

“When I started out with Holman-Moody (in the 1960s) I had to have a job to put food on the table,” he said. “I worked from eight in the morning until 10 at night. I got paid $1.50 an hour and took all the overtime I could get.

“All I wanted was having the fastest car possible and I pushed the envelope to do that.”
By pushing the envelope Wilson meant that there were times when he would build, and rebuild, an engine – by himself, late into the night – until he got what he wanted.

The goal was to beat the other guys. But Wilson added everyone knew they were in racing together as something of an extended family.
“I remember throwing away some parts,” he said. “Wendell Scott (the late African-American driver who is also a member of the hall of fame) asked me not to do it.

“They were good parts that he could use. I gave them to him, certainly. Everybody liked Wendell – and that’s what you did back then.”
Higgins’ recollections of his most memorable moments in racing included tales of the great, Dale Earnhardt, and the not-so-great, Johnny Ray. They were funny and poignant.

Higgins also reflected on how the media operated in the past. There weren’t that many of them and they certainly didn’t work in as nearly competitive, or high-tech, age.

“I understand how it is today,” Higgins said. “It’s always a scramble not to get beat on a story and that’s difficult.
“But while we tried to do the same thing, we were somewhat protective of the drivers. If you were sitting there with a gin and tonic in front of you and saw a driver doing the same thing, you couldn’t rightly or fairly report that you saw a driver drinking – or any other thing you were doing as well.”

Yes, I fully understand NASCAR isn’t remotely like it used to be. And it can’t be. It had to grow; to change with the times and technology if it was to survive.

I fully understand the new, expanding media – I have been around a long time and have my own tales to tell – but, hey, I’m still part of it.

I think that on that night in Charlotte, a trio of men so vividly reminded us all of how it used to be and how the achievements and sacrifices of many, who often interacted, raised NASCAR to what it is today.

They said far more than “Thank you.”
Higgins summarized it best:
“Today’s drivers, with their motorhomes and jets, every time they see any hall of fame member in this room they should hug them around the neck,” he said. “Then they should say, ‘Thank you for making all of this possible for me.’ ”

Everyone fully understood that on a night when no one nodded off or bolted for the door.

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