Derrike Cope, 58, hasn’t raced in a NASCAR Cup event since 2009, but he’ll drive Sunday in Georgia. The winner of the 1990 Daytona 500 said, “I wasn’t really sure I’d ever get back. But it feels really good and I can’t tell you how excited I am.”
HAMPTON, Ga. – When driver Derrike Cope of Spanaway climbs out of the No. 55 car, his work is just beginning.
He jogs about the garage with the urgency of a crew member, paying special attention to the shocks he built himself.
Then, checking the time, Cope hustles to the hauler to change out of his racing suit. Emerging a short time later like Superman through a revolving door, he is off to sign autographs at a local tractor company, which chipped in some bucks to his bare-bones operation.
When that is done, Cope rushes back to Atlanta Motor Speedway for evening qualifying.
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It’s hardly a glamorous life, certainly not what one would expect from a racer who has been to the NASCAR mountaintop.
Cope doesn’t find any of this beneath him.
It’s all about passion, not pride.
“I feel like a kid again,” Cope said Friday, relaxing in his hauler during a few minutes of down time.
He’s hardly a kid.
At age 58, he’ll be the oldest driver in Sunday’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race by more than a decade, competing against a bunch of 20-somethings and even a teenager (18-year-old Gray Gaulding). Driving for underfunded Premium Motorsports, his car adorned with sponsors such as Wade Tractor and Equipment, Cope has virtually no chance of keeping up with big-name teams and their millions in funding.
“You know when you make a good lap,” Cope said. “You know when you’re driving the car, when you’re manipulating the car and making good things happen with whatever equipment you have. So, the mindset is just to go out there and be proficient as you can, still drive within yourself and the equipment. I’ve been around these places a lot. I know every nook and cranny. I know what the car is going to do as far as losing grip and all those things. I’m just trying to stay within what the car will give me.”
This will be Cope’s first race at NASCAR’s highest level since 2009. He’s as pumped as any rookie.
“I just want to absorb all that I can until no one gives me an opportunity to or I just have no other option,” Cope said.
When he is introduced before the race, there will surely be plenty of fans cracking, “Hey, I thought he retired years ago!”
But to those who say it’s time for him to trade the driver’s seat for a rocking chair, Cope can pull out his membership in a noteworthy club: He is a Daytona 500 champion.
In 1990, he pulled off perhaps the greatest upset in NASCAR history, winning the sport’s biggest race when Dale Earnhardt shredded a tire on the final lap, allowing Cope to race by for the checkered flag.
“It really is exciting to have a Daytona 500 attached to your name,” Cope said. “It is credibility, instant credibility, no matter what. It was a life-changing moment. It still is something that you can draw from. When things aren’t going as well or whatever, it’s something you can just reflect on and have some sense of gratification that, you know what, I’ve been to the top.”
Cope won another race that year, but those are his only Cup triumphs.
In fact, he hasn’t won a race in any of NASCAR’s top-three series since 1994.
Cope spent the past few years running his own team in the second-tier Xfinity Series, but he never had the funding to be a serious contender and was finally forced to shut things down.
Then he got a call from Premium Motorsports, offering a chance to run at least a few Cup races this season.
“I wasn’t really sure I’d ever get back,” Cope said. “But it feels really good, and I can’t tell you how excited I am.”
With a mere 39 cars entering an event with room for 40, Cope’s spot on the starting grid was assured even though the car failed inspection Friday.
“I’m sure he’s going to have a bigger smile behind the helmet than anyone on the racetrack,” seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson said, “just because of the passion he has for the sport.”
No one was working harder leading up to the race.
With a skeleton crew — perhaps four or five members — Cope usually has his head under the hood when he’s not behind the wheel.
But don’t call it work.
“It’s in my blood,” said Cope, the son of a Top Fuel drag racer. “I loved what he did. And we did this together. We made our plan. We went forward with it. Ten years from when we started, we were winning Daytona. I just loved it so much, just loved driving the race car.”
When the green flag waves Sunday, all eyes will be on the guys up front.
But don’t forget that car running toward the back.
No one will be having more fun than the driver of the No. 55 Chevrolet.