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Winning Daytona not always ticket to fame

February 15, 2009|Will Graves | Graves writes for the Associated Press.

DAYTONA BEACH, FLA. — Derrike Cope gingerly pulled himself out of his No. 75 Dodge following qualifying for the Daytona 500 last week and waved to the handful of fans standing along a fence just outside pit road.

"Derrike, can I have your shoes?" a woman asked, pointing at Cope's blue racing shoes.

Cope just smiled and waved, told her "I need 'em" and turned to talk to members of his crew after a disappointing qualifying run around the most famous 2.5-mile tri-oval in auto racing.

Even now, nearly 20 years after the biggest victory of his career in the 1990 Daytona 500, it never gets old.

Sure, Cope would like to be known for more than being in the right place at the right time when Dale Earnhardt Sr. sliced a tire in turn three on the last lap of that year's 500, clearing the way for Cope's improbable win.

Then again, there are worse problems to have than people hailing your unlikely path to Victory Lane in the biggest race of the year.

"Obviously, winning a championship would be the ultimate," Cope said. "But if you're going to win a race or anything close to it, this is the race you want to win."

Every driver worth his fire suit will tell you there's nothing quite like winning the 500. Yet unlike the NFL, winning NASCAR's Super Bowl doesn't always lead to a championship.

Only eight drivers have won both the 500 and a Cup title in the same season and Daytona's chaotic finishes can lead to more than their share of upsets, giving blue-collar drivers like Cope a little slice of history.

It's a portion Cope hoped would get a little bigger after stealing the 500. It never happened.

While he picked up a second victory later that season at Dover, he hasn't been able to recapture the magic he held on that warm February day nearly two decades ago. He's never finished higher than 15th in the season standings during his career and has spent most of the last few years bouncing between cars, series and owners.

"I've won more than one race, I've won Nationwide, I've won poles," said Cope, who failed to make the 43-car field for this year's race with his No. 75 Dodge following the duel 150-mile qualifiers on Thursday.

Cope's story is hardly unique. For every Richard Petty or Jimmie Johnson -- drivers who vaulted to superstardom after winning the 500 -- there is a Cope or a Ward Burton, blue-collar guys who were thrust briefly into the spotlight thanks to some hard work and a little racing luck.

Burton came from nowhere to win the 2002 race for Bill Davis Racing when Sterling Marlin hopped out to fix a busted fender while the race was halted by a red flag. The illegal move sent Marlin to be the back of the pack and opened the door for the defining moment of Burton's moderately successful career.

Seven years later he's out of Sprint Cup, opting instead to spend most of his time in his native Virginia monitoring the blossoming career of son Jeb and working for the Ward Burton Wildlife Foundation.

It wasn't quite the future he envisioned after winning the biggest race of his life. But Burton faded to 25th in the points in 2002 as Bill Davis' small operation failed to keep up with the warp-speed technological advances that were changing the sport on a weekly basis.

Winning the 500 opened the doors for Burton to move on to bigger teams with deeper pockets, but he opted to stay with Bill Davis. Looking back, he admits it may have not been the smartest business move.

"I don't know if I regret it," he said. "But I was never in a situation to be in a multicar team with the resources to be one of the top dogs every week."

Yet Daytona can bedevil even NASCAR's best teams. Earnhardt Sr. and Darrell Waltrip had already won multiple Cup championships but went years without winning the 500 simply because of the sheer democracy of it all.

"What's still good about this race though is, I don't care how fast your car is, it's one of those places that stuff happens," said Ray Evernham, who served as crew chief for three of Jeff Gordon's four Cup titles and two of his three victories in the 500. Gordon and Evernham had already won a Cup title in '95, but didn't cement their status as the circuit's top team until becoming the youngest 500 winner in history two years later.

Yet there was no giddy celebration that afternoon, more a sense of relief that the team had truly arrived.

For all its history, the formula for winning the 500 hasn't changed much. In the end, Daytona is much like any other restrictor-plate race. The recipe for reserving a parking space in Victory Lane is simple: avoid The Big One, bide your time and maybe the stars will align.

"Restrictor plate tracks take a different type of racing mentality and preparation from the team," Gordon said.

A little good karma helps too.

Burton felt he had the fastest car in 2001 only to get caught up in a massive pileup that ended his day early. He figures he missed The Big One by all of 6 inches in 2002 when Gordon and Ryan Newman got together in turn one. Burton told his crew on the radio shortly after escaping that he finally had the break he needed.

"We didn't have a good handling car for the first seven-eighths of the race," he said. "But we got a good set of tires the last pit stop, got up to third before (the red flag) and I knew we were set up."

While the victory didn't lead to the stardom he envisioned, winning the 500 is something that can never be taken away. It still pops up whenever he does any public speaking, whether it's stumping on Capitol Hill for wildlife conservation or jotting down autographs for fans at a local racetrack.

"Daytona 500 winner, heck, it might go on my tombstone I guess," Burton said. "I've certainly been pretty lucky for a country boy from southern Virginia."

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