July 28, 2003
1:53 PM EDT (1753 GMT)
The 1990 Daytona 500, more than any other of the 39 editions of the race, epitomized Dale Earnhardt's frustration at trying to win the only Daytona event that has escaped his clutches. Earnhardt absolutely dominated the race by leading 155 of the 200 laps, but when his car had a tire problem on the backstretch on the last lap, upstart Derrike Cope scooted through to grab his first NASCAR Winston Cup victory.
Ken Schrader won his third straight Daytona 500 Bud Pole Award with a speed of 196.515 mph in Rick Hendrick's Chevrolet. Schrader wrecked that car on the final lap of his Gatorade 125-Mile Qualifying Race and was forced to start the "World's Greatest Race" in 40th position in a back-up car.
Schrader, who retained a shot at the $212,800 UNOCAL 76 Challenge bonus available to the pole winner if he could also win the race, showed he was plenty stout by running from 40th to second in the race's first 100 miles. The engine in Schrader's car broke after 58 laps, though, and he finished right where he started -- 40th
Despite Earnhardt's dominant performance in Richard Childress' Chevrolet Lumina, there were still 27 lead changes among 13 drivers. No one could do much with Earnhardt, though, except when he pitted or was slowed by one of only three caution flags. Cope, driving Bob Whitcomb's Chevrolet, lurked around the front of the field all day but only led a total of four laps in the first 195.
Cope, who stayed out under the final caution, led laps 194-195. Earnhardt, true to form, took the lead back on lap 196 and appeared to be home free given his earlier control of the relatively caution-free event.
As the tightly-packed lead group of cars snaked down the 3,000-foot backstretch for the final time, Earnhardt was grimly aware that he was less than a mile away from his most coveted victory. In the family's motor coach, wife Teresa and daughter Taylor danced a victory jig for a live CBS Sports camera.
And then disaster struck. Earnhardt's car, as it swept into turn 3, washed up the track -- the victim of an apparent tire problem. Cope pulled his No. 10 Lumina to the bottom of the race track and drove the final third-lap into the history books, about two-car-lengths ahead of Terry Labonte's Oldsmobile at the finish. Bill Elliott's Ford and Ricky Rudd's Chevrolet raced past as well and finished third and fourth in front of the crestfallen three-time NASCAR Winston Cup champion Earnhardt.
Ironically, Harold Elliott, engine builder for 1989 NASCAR Winston Cup champion Rusty Wallace, had remarked to a journalist some 50 lap earlier, "I think the only way anybody will beat Dale Earnhardt today is to shoot his tires out."
It wasn't a bullet that did-in Earnhardt's tire, but man who has won 29 races to-date at Daytona was through all the same. "What a heartbreaker," said Childress. "To be a half-mile from something you've dreamed about all your life -- man, that's awfully hard to take..."
Cope's victory, in which he averaged 165.761 mph, was his first in the series and was followed less than four months later by his second score, at Dover (Del.) Downs International Speedway. The victory was his first top-five finish in his NWC career, which began with his first start in 1982. He became the fourth driver to score his first NWC victory in the Daytona 500, following Tiny Lund (1963), Mario Andretti (1967) and Pete Hamilton (1970).
"Not in my wildest dreams did I think we could come here and win this race," said the Spanaway, Wash., pilot, who won $188,150 for his victory.