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.