Cope knows it's better to give back

In most cases, there are only a few people who come into our lives and make a lasting impression upon us. The kind of lasting impression that sticks even after they leave this earth.

For many, the late Dale Earnhardt was one. And Alan Kulwicki was another. Less than six months after winning his first Winston Cup championship in 1992, Kulwicki was tragically killed along with three others in a plane crash while flying in for a race at Bristol, Tenn.

And even though it has been more than 11 years since he died, the driver of the No. 7 Hooters Ford Thunderbird remains with us in spirit and recollection.

NASCAR driver Derrike Cope knew Kulwicki. Their lives were similarly intertwined: both worked their way up virtually from their bootstraps. They talked quite a bit and considered each other friends. Both were fiercely independent. Both had a thirst for success and a drive for perfection that never dwindled, not even in the present time for Cope, who has seen his share of struggles on the racetrack the last few years.

Yet Cope, who won the 1990 Daytona 500, never forgot the impression Kulwicki made upon him. That's why Cope is looking forward to Saturday's Busch race in Milwaukee, Wisc., which has been named in his late friend's memory as the Alan Kulwicki 250.

"I knew Alan pretty well and spent a lot of time together," Cope recalled. "We were both running Fords at the time. He was one of those guys who was very intelligent. He really knew where the sport was going and he was utilizing every means at his disposal with his knowledge of the engineering side and in regard to shocks and geometry, all those things. He was a remarkable individual in all regards. To see what he did with a little, much like we're doing now, trying to do a lot with a little, he was able to accomplish that and take it to the highest of levels. He was just a unique individual and great person."

Cope is hoping that competing in a race that bears his late friend's name will serve as an extra amount of luck for him and the No. 49 Advil Ford that Cope will pilot Saturday night at The Milwaukee Mile.

"I feel honored to have known him in regards to what we did and respected him for what he did," Cope said. "I may be the only one in the race that really knew Alan and respected what he did. Going into this race means a lot. It's a special time. I can remember that morning in Bristol (when word came of Kulwicki's fatal crash). It's still not all that many years because that memory is still very vivid in my mind."

Cope needs a shot in the arm this weekend. He's currently 28th in the Busch rankings, but has yet to earn a top-10 finish. With a small budget, he's trying to accomplish a lot with a little, but still, the veteran driver is respectably holding his own.

"A weekend like this is a David and Goliath story, really," Cope said. "You're always battling against those guys who have more and try to do the best you can. That's what this weekend brings for us. We'll keep working hard the rest of the year to do the same thing and do the best we can and hopefully present a situation for next year and elevate our game and be even more competitive."

Cope is also racing full-time in the Nextel Cup series, where he's a two-time winner in his career, including the emotional triumph in the 1990 Daytona 500. The Spanaway, Wash., native has qualified for 13 of the first 15 events, is ranked 36th and is also seeking his first top-10 finish there as well.

Yet despite where he is in both the Busch and Cup rankings, Cope remains focused and determined to not only do his best on the racetrack, but also to help his team improve itself. It takes time, patience and persistence, and Cope has exemplified that throughout his career, not unlike Kulwicki's methodical rise to become NASCAR's best in 1992.

"Alan Kulwicki was the epitome of what sports is all about," Cope said. "He was focused on his goal, which was to be the best in his sport, and he worked as hard as he could to get there. He didn't have as much money as a lot of teams but he and his guys outworked everybody else, and they won races and they won a championship.

"That gives hope to everyone, from the biggest teams to the smallest. Even today, great things can be done by anybody. It's hard but as long as you keep working, you have hope."

Cope's Busch Series team owner, Jay Robinson, echoes those feelings. In his fourth season as a team owner, Robinson has become known as being one of the most industrious and innovative owners in the game. He knows he hasn't been dealt as many lucrative cards as other, better-financed team owners may have, but he plays his hand dutifully and lets the chips fall where they may.

"We do the best we can and our guys work hard," Robinson said. "Our goal on the track is to run competitively. Our goal on and off the track is to take whatever our sponsors invest with us and give them twice as much in return. For every dollar we get in sponsorship, we want to give them two dollars back in exposure, in how our cars look, and in response from the race fans. I know that for every dollar in sponsorship we get, we give back five dollars in effort. Nobody outworks us."

That, Cope said, is the spirit of Alan Kulwicki.

"NASCAR racing was built on that kind of thinking, giving back more than you get," Cope said. "Guys like Jay Robinson are built from the same mold as an Alan Kulwicki. Your goal is always to do the best you can and to finish as high as you can on the track, but giving back to the sponsors and the fans should always be your top goal."

Jerry Bonkowski covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Motorsportwriter@Yahoo.com.