Race Weekend Central

That’s History Profiles: Derrike Cope

Hometown: Spanaway, Wash.
Resides: Huntersville, N.C.
Marital Status: Single
Religion: Catholic
Favorite Food: Chicken and dumplings
Favorite Music: ’70s music, Country
Birthplace: San Diego, Calif.
Birthdate: Nov. 3, 1958
Height: 5′ 7″
Weight: 180
Eyes: Hazel

The 1990 Daytona 500 holds the legend to one of the most memorable events in the history of The Great American Race. Not so much because of who won it, but because of who lost the race entering turn 3 on the last lap. Dale Earnhardt seemed destined to finally win the race that had eluded him through his entire career after dominating the event, leading 155 of 200 laps.

However, a broken piece of transmission bellhousing from Ricky Rudd‘s No. 5 Levi-Garrett Chevrolet ended that notion. Earnhardt ran over the debris entering turn 3 at about 195 mph, and cut down a right-rear tire. The black No. 3 GM Goodwrench Lumina wobbled up the racetrack and slowed, clearing the way for relative unknown Derrike Cope from Spanaway, Wash. to capture his first career victory in NASCAR’s biggest race.

Who can forget hearing Ned Jarrett in disbelief fumble for words and blurt out, “…and here comes Dope Cope down on the inside to take the lead!!!” and seeing Teresa Earnhardt with daughter Taylor in one arm, scanner in the other hand, watching the events unfold in the motorcoach. The next scene was Teresa, head buried in her hands, while their daughter was crying not so much in confusion, but more likely knowing that mom was inconsolable because they had yet again snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.

Cope, driving the Bob Whitcomb-owned No. 10 Puralotor Chevrolet crew chiefed by the legendary Buddy Parrott, had 71 career starts and only three previous Daytona 500 entries before winning the crown jewel of stock car racing. Cope ran well during Speedweeks, starting 12th for the big race following a strong fifth-place finish in the Twin 125 qualifying race the previous Thursday.

To say that Cope backed into the victory would be a misnomer. To finish first, you first must finish the old adage goes, and running second on the last lap of the Daytona 500 isn’t a bad place to be. Following some savvy pit strategy by Buddy Parrott after a late-race caution, Cope was in position for a top-five finish regardless of what happened with Earnhardt. It wasn’t as if the Big One transpired on lap 190 and eliminated 25 cars, leaving him to reap the benefits by simply not hitting anything.

Cope’s Daytona 500 victory was vindicated in June 1990, when he went to victory at Dover, Del. He chased down and passed Rusty Wallace with less than 50 laps to go, winning on the 1-mile banked oval when its surface was still asphalt and the races were still 500 miles, not the shortened 400-mile distance of today. This helped prove that both the team and the driver were for real, and that they were more than just the benefactors of Earnhardt’s typically awful Daytona 500 luck. Cope finished the 1990 season with two wins, six top 10s and an 18th-place finish in points.

Unfortunately, that would be the last time that Cope would win a NASCAR Winston Cup event. Cope and the Purolator team returned to Daytona in July, looking to enjoy the same success they had the previous February.

On the second lap of the race coming through the tri-oval, Cope and Greg Sacks came together, triggering what could be described as the first official Big One on a restrictor-plate track. Cope and Sacks ended up taking out, of all people, Richard Petty, who was running strong and had a legitimate shot at winning No. 201 that day. The No. 10 team struggled throughout the 1991 and 1992 seasons, eventually disbanding a week before the 1993 Daytona 500.

Derrike went on to enjoy a few more successes during the 1990s. In 1995 he drove the No. 12 Bobby Allison entry, ending up with his best career points finish in 15th place. He narrowly missed winning a race that year, losing to Rudd on the final lap at Phoenix by a scant .530 seconds. He also drove for Cale Yarborough, MB2 Motorsports and Bahari Racing. Cope suffered injuries following vicious wrecks at Atlanta and Texas in the spring of 1998, derailing what looked like a promising season in the black No. 30 Gumout Pontiac.

Cope began his career in the early 1980s driving for George Jefferson Racing. He began moving on up, winning the 1983 NASCAR Late Model Sportsman championship and garnering 1984 Winston West Rookie of the Year Honors. Cope could actually be considered a pioneer of sorts, as he was part of the initial wave of non-regional drivers into NASCAR. Cope, along with Chad Little, Jimmy Spencer, Dick Trickle, Wally Dallenbach Jr. and the late Rob Moroso, were part of a crop of new young drivers in the late ’80s who did not come from the southeastern United States, as did most drivers of the day.

Derrike almost went a different path in professional sports as well, having been scouted by the Chicago Cubs and Baltimore Orioles. As a catcher for his college baseball team, he tore both his MCL and ACL in one freak accident during a routine play, and his days of playing baseball were finished.

Cope now competes sparingly in the Nextel Cup Series, scoring rides with underfunded teams that a couple of years ago were deemed “field fillers” following an unfortunate incident early on in a race with Jeff Gordon at Darlington. Derrike also has done stints as a commentator and analyst for FOX Sports, as well as a spokesman for hair-loss treatment sponsor Avicor.

Although Derrike has not won a race since Dover in June of 1990, he will best be remembered as being in the right place at the right time. To be able to win a race, you first need to put yourself in a position to win. He did just that, and just so happened to win one of the two most prestigious auto races in the world.

About the author


Vito is one of the longest-tenured writers at Frontstretch, joining the staff in 2007. With his column Voice of Vito (monthly, Fridays) he’s a contributor to several other outlets, including Athlon Sports and Popular Speed in addition to making radio appearances. He forever has a soft-spot in his heart for old Mopars and presumably oil-soaked cardboard in his garage.

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