Ex-Daytona 500 champ Derrike Cope shows passion in his return — even if he can’t win

Photo by Infield Jen

By Yvonne Jones, Staff Writer

LAS VEGAS — Former Daytona 500 champion Derrike Cope moves briskly about the garage like a man in his natural element. And in conversation, it’s obvious the 58-year-old driver’s return to NASCAR’s highest level is driven by a love for the sport.

The Kobalt 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Sunday will mark Cope’s second race back. He made his return at Atlanta Motor Speedway last week, his first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series start since 2009.

“I have great passion for the sport,” said Cope, who won the Daytona 500 in 1990. “I love this.”

Cope had plenty of support in his return at Atlanta, where he started 38th and finished two spots better in his Premium Motorsports No. 55 Chevrolet.

“I certainly had a great time,” said a smiling Cope. “It’s been a while since I’ve been in a Cup car so I really relish the opportunity that Premium gave me, and you know, Adrenalin Powersports and Wade Tractor and Equipment gave me the chance to be here, and Glenn Brown Trucking so I gotta thank them.”

The Spanaway, Washington native said he been itching for years to make this comeback.

“I had been trying to make this Cup return since the day I had to step out,” said Cope, who started his Cup career in 1982. “Circumstances as they were for a long time forced me to make a living in racing doing other things, but you always want to return to Cup, which is truly where I first started on the East Coast.”

The opportunity came from Premium Motorsports owner and longtime friend Jay Robinson. Cope said the team “needed a guy to come and build shocks so I was actually hired on to do the shock absorbers and to work on the cars.” And with his 30-year driving experience, Cope worked out a deal to get back behind the wheel.

“If I had to resign myself to being a shock builder or crew member I would do it, but I wouldn’t say I would be content,” Cope admitted.

Maybe not.

“I’ve known Derrike for a long time and that’s as happy as I’ve seen him in many years,” said Robinson, who also serves as a jackman. “It’s very clear that he wanted to be there; he was excited to be there. He actually did a very good job in the car.

“And then after Atlanta – preparing to come here – he was actually in the shop till 3 a.m. working that very next week. That shows the commitment he’s got.”

For this weekend at LMVS, Cope has no sponsors for his No. 55 car, Robinson said Friday. Neither for Phoenix or Fontana.

Cope said after the West Coast swing, the team will “assess where we are at and see if we can put some more relationships together and some more funding and get ready to try to do some more races.”

Cope though has no regrets about his career path. He first started out playing baseball – in high school and college — but injury forced him to change course. But don’t call it fate.

“I don’t believe in destiny, he said. “I believe in hard work, good choices, and perseverance gets you where you are. I do not regret not playing professional baseball. The injury I suffered put me in a full leg cast for almost a year, a lot of rehabilitation and the leg will always be compromised. I actually got into a race car for the first time with a cast still on my leg, and used my crutch for the gas pedal. I was hooked, and never looked back after that.”

Sunday’s race will be his 411th start at the Cup level and he will roll off 38th. His Facebook and Twitter accounts indicate that fans are rooting for him with many wishing him “good luck.”

Cope knows his underfunded team is no match for the Hendricks of the sport, but that’s not what this is about.

“I just want the Cup comeback to be enjoyable,” he explained. “Success and satisfaction for me would be to run competitive at some tracks, be able to finish races, and have fun doing it, bringing enjoyment to the sponsors and others.”

Cope’s biggest supporter is his wife, Elyshia.

“It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game” said Elyshia as she pointed out the famous quote. “Well, in motorsports there are 40 teams out there on any given Sunday, and only one goes to victory circle. As an underfunded team, there are levels of victory. Success is measured by your effort, skill, and tenacity.

“My husband embodies an integrity and pure motivation that is not fueled by greed or fame, but by a humble fury for who and what he loves. I wouldn’t want him any other way.”

Cope did have a David vs. Goliath moment when he capitalized on Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s mishap to pull off one of the biggest upsets in the Great American race 27 years ago. And it wasn’t his only time in winner’s circle. He was there later that same year, at Dover.

And when Cope finally hangs it up as a driver, it won’t be because of age. He doesn’t “think age really means anything.” It will be for lack of an opportunity.

“I’ve loved this since my father and I started this journey and I really am going to absorb all I can absorb,” he said. “I got one life to live and I’m going live it to the fullest degree. It’s meant to be a race car driver and that’s what I do and I’m going to do it until I exhaust every avenue and no one will give me a chance to do it anymore.”



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