Among themselves, drivers call the backstraight at Daytona International Speedway "Chicken Bone Alley," for the remnants of the fans' favorite food that pile up on the edge of the track. But for Dale Earnhardt that section of the 2.5-mile track will long be remembered as Disaster City. On Sunday he was storming through the alley at 200 mph, about 15 seconds away from victory in the Daytona 500, when his dream exploded in a puff of hot air. Earnhardt's jet-black Chevy Lumina ran over a piece of another car's blown transmission, which cut his right rear tire, allowing the four cars tailing him to stream on by. This was Earnhardt's 12th crack at the 500, and though he has won the NASCAR points championship three times, he's still snakebit at Daytona.
Sorry, Dale, but this time victory was destined for Derrike Cope (who?). In only his third attempt at the 500, Cope, an unaffected 31-year-old from Spanaway, Wash, (where?), drove the race of his life, hanging his Day-Glopink Chevy Lumina onto Earnhardt's bumper for as much of the race as he could. Thus he was in position to receive what was handed to him in Chicken Bone Alley: a glowing future. As Earnhardt masterfully kept his car under control when it slid high and sideways in Turn 3, Cope steered low and held off Terry Labonte's Oldsmobile and Bill Elliott's Ford for the win, which was about as astonishing to him as it was to the more than 150,000 stunned fans.
"There was no way I could run with Dale," Cope said afterward. "But going into Turn 3, I heard a big, loud noise and saw a bunch of stuff coming up from his car, and I just turned that baby left as hard as I could and said, 'Please stick!' "
"Derrike drove a good race, but they didn't outrun us, they just lucked into it," said a crestfallen Earnhardt, who is called the Intimidator for his never-say-lift driving style. "But you can't kick the car, pout, squall and bawl about it. You've just got to take it and move on."
"He's right about our lucking into it, I guess," said Cope. "But that's O.K., I'm going home the winner"—and with $188,150 in prize money.
Success is new to Cope—so new he had to radio his veteran crew chief, Buddy Parrott, for directions to Victory Lane. In 66 Winston Cup races since 1986, Cope had finished in the top 10 only six times; last year he did not even qualify for the Daytona 500. But that is not to say Sunday's victory was a fluke: Cope hasn't often had a competitive car. Sometimes he has barely had a car at all. In 1987, when he entered just 12 races, Cope's team consisted of just three guys, including him. They all lived in a two-bedroom apartment over a garage in Charlotte, N.C.—Cope got the mattress on the living room floor. The season's winnings were $33,750, and all of that had to go back into the operation. "That's how bad I wanted to be here," Cope says. "I drove for nothing. I had to show people that I could drive a race car." He showed enough to Bob Whit-comb that, midway through last season, the car owner signed Cope to drive for him.
Cope's willingness to pay his dues did not go unnoticed by his competitors, either. He has received good counsel from Elliott, Ricky Rudd (who finished fourth) and the Intimidator himself, who wound up fifth. As Cope drove down pit road after his cool-down lap, he was saluted with upraised fists and broad smiles by the men who work there. "I think that meant as much to me as winning the race," he said.
Although the story had a Cinderella ending, it had not exactly been a fairytale week. Cope's engine had to be flown to Charlotte twice in the days preceding the 500 to be rebuilt two times. The second of those rebuilds was routine, coming after Thursday's 125-mile qualifying race, in which Cope finished sixth. The first, on Tuesday, was a different matter. It came after Cope missed a shift. Parrott, 53, explained the mishap with a mixture of amusement and fatherly scorn for his driver. "Derrike slams the gearshift like he's driving a dragster," Parrott said, "and he's kind of short-legged. Well, one time he didn't get the clutch pedal down all the way and bent every valve in the motor."
Throughout the race Cope kept radioing to Parrott that the car was handling "loose," which means the back end was sliding too much. Parrott, going by the evidence of the tire temperatures, responded by making adjustments to the rear spoiler that made the car looser...and faster. Sometimes an inexperienced driver can't really tell what his car needs, especially when its carefully created aerodynamics are upset by running in close quarters with other cars. "He's too young to be hollering, 'Loose,' " scoffed Parrott after the race. "If he wants me to tighten up the car, he's got to get some more blisters on his hands from fighting that steering wheel first."
In the final practice session, on Saturday, Cope discovered that his Lumina handled smoothly in the draft of Earnhardt's and that his rebuilt engine had the power to stay there. "I was trying to follow Dale for the whole race. Wherever he was going to go, I was going to follow," said Cope. "I kept telling myself: Just be patient. Stay in the high groove and let the others move me up."