Cope, who famously won the traditional Cup season-opener 31 years ago after a puncture on the last lap denied Dale Earnhardt a maiden win in the event, will drive a chartered Rick Ware Racing-run Chevrolet Camaro in his final entry at Daytona International Speedway.
After stepping back from a full-time racing career in 1999, Cope has made sporadic Cup appearances in the intervening years, including attempting to qualify for a majority of races in 2006, but last competed in a Cup race at Darlington in 2018. His last Daytona 500 entry came in 2011.
But despite his rustiness in a Cup car, and the age factor, Cope – who was once touted as a potential baseball star until an injury curtailed his playing career – is confident he can still be a factor come the often-frantic closing laps of the 500.
“I feel like I understand the air as good as anyone,” explained Cope, whose other victory in Cup came at Dover later in 1990. “I will go to Daytona, and if I do make it to the end, with 20 [laps] to go, and I can get myself in a position to have some air, and be in a position to race hard, they will know I am there.”
“I am not afraid of anything, I am not afraid of mixing it up, I am not afraid of pushing and shoving, and I am not afraid of wrecking. Bottom line is if they want to play, we’ll play.
“The sport is very aggressive right now. You have a lot of young kids that really have no regard for pretty much anything, except getting to the finish line and winning.
“That’s just the way I look at it. I’ve got one shot at this thing, and when all is said and done, I can walk away and say: ‘I had a lot of fun today and sorry you guys got wrecked.’”
Race winner Derrike Cope
Photo by: NASCAR Media
Cope, who is team manager of the small StarCom Racing outfit, said the deal to run the race was a “gift” from his co-owners and his wife, and that “I was not really privy to what transpired” – only letting him know about it when the deal was already done.
“I’ve always wanted to run a couple of races, but my role here at StarCom, just for the organisation, I thought it was best financially just for us to try and put some things together of the racing kind, things under its belt, get in some races and that kind of took me out of the seat, which was really the ultimate plan,” he explained.
“I love Daytona I’ve always felt like if I would end things, I’d like to be doing it there, and certainly I have a lot of passion for the place.”
With Cope being nearly 37 years older than reigning Cup champion Chase Elliott, there have been some people questioning whether it is right for someone of Cope’s age to compete, but the man himself is non-plussed by the furore.
“I don’t really pay attention to social media,” he said. “I really don’t care what other people think, if I did, I probably wouldn’t be in this position.
“Honestly, it is really about what I want, and this is something for my wife and I to absorb together and enjoy and have good equipment to go down there and have some fun. I really don’t care what other people think to be honest with you. I am going to go down there, have some fun, and let the chips fall where they may, and when all is said and done, as long as I am at peace with myself, I think that is all you can ask for…”
Cope failed to set a lap time during qualifying on Wednesday night after a car issue, but as a charter entry was guaranteed a spot in the 40-car field.
He will start from 32nd but will likely take the green flag well inside the top 30 places as multiple drivers have been forced to take backup cars after wrecks in the Duel races.