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Cope lives for next thrill

It looked like Dale Earnhardt had the 1990 Daytona 500 in the bag. Then, he cut a tire on the final lap and underdog Derrike Cope, No. 10, roared to victory. ISC Archives/Getty Images

Down at the far end of the Daytona garage, the 18-wheelers are naked. Many are secondhand. There are no teams of aerospace engineers. There are no racks filled with shock absorbers. There are no giant grills cranking out marinated chicken sandwiches for dozens of crisply uniformed crew members as they pore over digital data on their laptops.

No, that's at the end of the garage closest to pit road, the end where everything is painted in Fortune 500 colors, where fans line up to look in on big-name teams as they work and celebrities stroll by on guided Daytona Speedweeks tours.

The distance between there and here, where the Charlie's Soap Chevy is being prepared for Saturday's Xfinity Series race, is several hundred yards. It might as well be several hundred miles. This is the corner of the garage that's barely in the garage, where they dine on bologna sandwiches and more than a few crew guys look like pirates.

That's where Derrike Cope is doing work. Like, all of the work. His self-owned race team has six full-time employees, a count that includes himself and marketing director Elyshia Cope, his wife of nearly a year. He lists his job description as "driver/owner/salesman/marketer/engine specialist/shock guy/whatever-else-needs-to-be-done guy."

For Daytona, his team of a half dozen will be helped by three volunteer crewmen, recruited by Elyshia and having covered their own expenses for the opportunity to get their foot in the NASCAR door. It is merely the first wave of free freelancers that will pitch in all season, the faces changing as the circuit travels from region to region, just as the sponsor stickers on the car do the same.

It's a hard way to live. It's an impossible way to make money. But for Cope, there's something oddly comfortable about it. It's racing.

"I love it," said 56-year-old Derrike Cope. "People ask all the time, why do I keep doing this? But it's a privilege. It's fun. To get up every day and be excited about your job, that's a gift. All the long nights at the shop, on the phone, doing everything. Then I get to slip behind the wheel, put those earphones in, put that helmet on and drive that race car?

"That's the payoff. The thrill of that has never gone away."

Neither has the thrill of his greatest racing moment.

On Wednesday, just past 4 p.m. ET, Derrike Cope's Daytona 500 victory will turn 25 years old. That infamously famous moment when Dale Earnhardt, only two turns away from finally spearing his white whale, inexplicably slashed a tire.

The Intimidator slowed helplessly as Cope, a largely unknown 32-year old from Spanaway, Washington, jetted by on the inside, holding off future NASCAR Hall of Famers Terry Labonte and Bill Elliott for the win.

His celebration is still among the most genuine ever seen at the "World Center of Racing." His description of the moment, that he can still feel the warmth of the sunshine on his face, is oft repeated but never gets old. When he won again just 10 weeks later at Dover, Cope's future as a top-shelf NASCAR Cup Series competitor felt foregone.

But he never won again despite making 327 more Cup starts, many of those driving for legends such as Cale Yarborough and Bobby Allison.

He is a career 0-for-15 in NASCAR's Truck Series, and his lone win in the Xfinity Series came in 1994 in just his third start in what was then the Busch Series. Since that victory at New Hampshire, he has made 227 starts in NASCAR's second division, many coming in cars prepared by his own hand. Since 2004, he has started 175 races. Of those, he finished just 85, including 16 of 28 starts one year ago.

Critics call him a start-and-park. They claim he is rigging the system in his favor in order to pocket some easy cash. Cope politely shrugs it off, calling them "misinformed." His wife is not so subtle.

"I get where it comes from, but honestly, the NASCAR fans who say that are just lumping Derrike in with a group that he doesn't belong to," she says, bristling. "There was a time in his career where he had to start and park. But that's not what we do now. Last year we ran the full [Xfinity] schedule and our reasons for falling out of races were legitimate. We blew engines. We had electrical failures. Maybe we had a wreck in practice. Well, guess what? We don't have a backup car. So we have to make as many laps as we can with the car that Derrike had to repair himself."

"The motivation isn't money," she continues. "Trust me. There's no money in this. This is a great way to go bankrupt. But he loves it. I love it. That's why we keep showing up."

Keeping on showing up has been Cope's approach since he first started racing 35 years ago. His efforts now are a familiar reflection of his efforts then. As a kid he tagged along behind father Don and uncle Jerry, engine builders and top fuel drag racers. Little Derrike developed a knack for building engines and also building relationships with potential sponsors.

Eventually, he started constructing his own race cars out of his father's shop and towing them to NASCAR Winston West (now K&N West) races. That landed him in the occasional Winston Cup event at the Riverside (California) International Raceway. Eventually, he took a chance by moving east and started piecing together more Cup starts, more often than not ending with "Did Not Finish" in the box score due to mechanical failures.

But his scrappiness caught the eye of some of NASCAR's old guard, throwback racers and mechanics such as Elmo Langley and Buddy Parrott and a throwback sponsor, Purolator.

Cope and Parrott were paired up by bottom-rung team owner Bob Whitcomb in 1989. The following year, still-new restrictor plates choked engines to the point that the Daytona 500 playing field was leveled off.

Forgotten now is that Cope led that race four times, only once under caution. His car was fast all day, so much so that he still believes he had a shot at making a move on Earnhardt even without the assistance of the cut tire.

"I was always able to close as we entered the turns but was so loose off of Turns 1 and 2 that I lost ground. But you can see I had the bottom. And I had help behind me. I think it was going to be pretty interesting to see what would have happened had it all played out."

He pauses. "But I'm pretty happy with how it ended up."

Cope's days as a full-time Cup driver ended in 1999, when longtime team owner Chuck Rider's effort began to flounder financially, the landscape of the sport began to change with the rapid multicar expansion of NASCAR "superteams" such as Hendrick Motorsports, and when the Bahari Racing team was sold, Cope was fired.

More than a decade and a half later, the sponsor of that team -- Sara Lee -- is the last full-time sponsor Cope had.

During that time, Cope spent time as a TV analyst for Fox Sports Net and as a driver development coach, primarily for young Europeans who wanted to take a crack at stock car racing. He took start-and-park gigs when he had to and fielded his own cars when he couldn't afford to, all to make sure he didn't vanish.

"This sport is out of sight, out of mind," he said. "If you go away, you lose any momentum you've ever had. If you go away for a little while, you go away forever. I couldn't let that happen, so I did what I had to do."

In the meantime, his last name's greatest source of attention came via the efforts of his nieces, Amber and Angela, who were known more for their "Twin Turbos" spread in Maxim than their 11 combined Xfinity and Truck Series starts.

Now his cousin, Ernie Cope, is taking the reins as crew chief of the team way up there at the high end of the garage with defending Xfinity champion Chase Elliott, 19-year-old son of Cope's longtime friend, Bill.

But every February, when Daytona rolls around, the Cope name belongs to one man.

"There's something about coming through that tunnel that recharges your batteries," he said. "Security guys, the guys at the gates, I've known them for decades. We catch up. There's the Daytona 500 Club. Interacting with all the young guys before the race. The staff there still calls me 'champ.'"

The champ keeps his Daytona 500 trophy, helmet and other mementos in his home office.

Richard Childress Racing still displays the slashed tire from Earnhardt's car, brought back from Daytona the night of Feb. 18, 1990, and nailed over the door of the race shop as a reminder of why a team must always fight until the checkered flag.

Now that shop is a museum. Every year the looped video of Cope's win looks that much older. The photos of his celebration look that much more faded. Some argue that the same has happened to Cope's legacy. They say his Daytona 500 win is tarnished just a little more by every trip he makes to do another weekend of yeoman's work at the low-rent end of the garage.

Such chatter honestly doesn't bother him. Neither does thinking back on the what-could-have-beens. He's too busy, down there where the TV cameras never visit. And he's going to keep coming to the racetrack until he runs out of either time or money, whichever comes first.

The electricity of that quarter-century-old Daytona 500 win still powers Derrike Cope, as does the chance -- however slight it may be -- to touch that lightning one more time.

"I'm going to keep showing up until I can't show up anymore. When that happens, either because I just don't have the passion for it or because I'm just flat broke, I'll go find something else to do. But that time isn't here yet.

"I love it. I love it too much to quit. And I'm not apologizing to anyone for that."