Monday, February 15, 2021

CUP: Derrike Cope’s last planned start comes to an end on Lap 3; LASTCAR record holder Michael McDowell wins first race in his 358th start

PHOTO: Elyshia Cope

Derrike Cope
picked up the 29th last-place finish of his NASCAR Cup Series career in Sunday’s 63rd Annual Daytona 500 at the Daytona International Speedway when his #15 Jacob Industries Chevrolet was eliminated in a single-car accident after 3 of 200 laps.

The finish, which came in Cope’s 428th series start, was his first since October 22, 2017 at Kansas, 113 races ago, the debut of his team, StarCom Racing. In the Cup Series’ last-place rankings, it was the 27th for the #15, the 608th from a crash, and the 799th for Chevrolet. Across NASCAR’s top three series, it was the 44th for the #15, the 1,237th from a crash, and the 1,761st for Chevrolet.

The full story of Cope’s career is a story for another time. But it’s well known that his life was forever changed at this same Daytona track on February 18, 1990. That day, he was running second in the Daytona 500, following in the tire tracks of a dominant Dale Earnhardt. He’d been running there much of the day in a fast Purolator Chevrolet, fielded by upstart Bob Whitcomb Racing with the leadership of veteran crew chief Buddy Parrott. Heading into the third turn for the final time, Earnhardt’s right-rear tire exploded, and Cope rushed past into the lead. He beat Terry Labonte to the finish line, a first-time winner in only his 72nd start. He’d win again at Dover that June.

Coming into 2021, Cope had started the 500 a total of 14 times. Other than his win in 1990, he’d never finished better than 18th in any of them.

On January 19, 2021, news broke that Cope, now the team manager of StarCom Racing, would be making his first Cup start since September 2, 2018 at Darlington in this year’s Daytona 500. It would be Cope’s first attempt to make the 500 field since 2011, and his first actually starting it since 2004. He knew he’d start thanks to a Charter secured from Rick Ware Racing. Cope was among the last to know of the deal, which had been arranged by his StarCom Racing co-owners for some time. When he’d take the green flag, the 62-year-old Cope would become the second-oldest driver ever to start “The Great American Race,” trailing only 68-year-old Mark Thompson in 2018.

In his media availability, Cope kept his expectations low, saying he was looking to have fun out there, and to take in the spectacle of the 500 along with his wife Elyshia. He did, however, point out that if he was still on the lead lap in the final 20 circuits, “they’re gonna have to deal with me.”

Unfortunately, not much went right for Cope through SpeedWeeks 2021. In Wednesday’s lone practice session, he ran 40th out of the 44 entrants. In qualifying that night, the car wouldn’t fire, and his car was pulled out from 7th in line. A dead battery kept him from making a qualifying attempt, and also kept him from taking his commemorative picture next to the car at the start / finish line.

Lined up 21st of 22 drivers for the second qualifying race, Cope battled side-by-side with B.J. McLeod’s #78 NASCAR Heat Ford for the first two laps, but ultimately lost touch with the draft. Complaining that his car was riding too high off the ground, Cope went down a lap on the 17th circuit, pulling below the yellow line to let the leaders pass. A pass-through penalty for speeding on pit road followed on Lap 33, and he was soon three laps down.

Cope lost one more lap just moments after taking the white flag. On that final lap, his car lost power heading into the backstretch, and he pulled below the yellow line at reduced speed. At that moment, Bubba Wallace and Austin Dillon were setting up a three-wide pass on race leader Martin Truex, Jr. The left-side tires of Wallace’s #23 Door Dash Toyota nearly crossed the yellow line, putting him dangerously close to Cope’s slowing car. Both drivers avoided a collision, but Cope was criticized on social media for the incident.

Cope hoped to work out the car’s handling in Saturday’s final practice session, but rain ended it after just three minutes. Cope ranked 25th this time out of the 27 who completed at least one lap. With his guaranteed starting spot thanks to Rick Ware’s Charter, Cope was set to start 32nd in the Daytona 500, but had little idea how his car would perform. Missing the race were Ty Dillon in the Gaunt Brothers’ #96 Bass Pro Shops Toyota, Noah Gragson in the #62 Beard Oil Distributing Chevrolet, and Motorsports Business Management teammates Garrett Smithley in the #13 Trophy Tractor Ford and Timmy Hill in the #66 VSI Racing Ford.

Taking the 40th and final starting spot was Kaz Grala, who made his Cup debut in Kaulig Racing’s #16 Hyper Ice Chevrolet. He did not come by the spot easily. Unable to lock himself in on speed, he needed to either race his way in or hope that David Ragan’s locked-in #36 Select Blinds Ford would race into the final transfer spot. On Lap 36, Grala was collected in a multi-car pileup off Turn 2 that left his car with damage to the right side. But when the other two “open” entries wrecked out on Lap 57 and Ragan finished 8th, Grala secured the final starting spot.

Ultimately, Grala was one of ten drivers were sent to the rear prior to the start, and one of seven for a backup car following wrecks in Thursday’s qualifying races. Chase Briscoe in the #14 High Point Ford and Anthony Alfredo in the #38 Speedy Cash Ford were involved in the same wreck as Grala on Thursday, surrendering 30th and 36th, respectively. The other backups were 24th-place Brad Keselowski in the #2 Discount Tire Ford, 27th-place Cole Custer in the #41 HaasTooling.com Ford, and 34th-place Ross Chastain in the #42 Clover Chevrolet. The other three penalized drivers were for technical reasons: Erik Jones surrendered the 31st spot for an engine change on his #43 Armor All Chevrolet, 26th-place Martin Truex, Jr. for a radiator and oil cooler change, and on race day, 6th-place Bubba Wallace’s #23 Door Dash Toyota failed inspection twice, then passed on the third attempt.

When the pace laps began, Cope said “Thanks everyone for your support,” and also gave a special message to his mother-in-law. He also indicated this was his “last ride,” which up until then he’d indicated was only a possibility. The ten penalized drivers moved him up in the rankings, and when the race started, Grala’s backup car dropped Josh Bilicki to last place in his #52 Wisconsin Lighting Labs Ford. Bilicki, the last-place finisher of Thursday’s first Duel race (LINK), drafted with teammate Cody Ware in the #51 Nurtec ODT Chevrolet, and the two began to lose touch with the rest of the leaders.

On Lap 2, Denny Hamlin had dropped to 38th place in his #11 FedEx Toyota, but Cope had climbed his way to 22nd. Footage shown later by FOX revealed Cope was holding off drivers trying to pass him. Exiting the tri-oval, Cope moved high, causing William Byron to check up. As Byron cracked the throttle, he was rear-ended by Bubba Wallace, who in turn was bumped in the left-rear by Brad Keselowski. Byron tried again in Turn 3, but Cope moved high, and Cope then inched to the left to hold off Matt DiBenedetto. Reports indicated Cope then made contact with Wallace, which damaged the right-rear tire.

Cope was still running the high lane on Lap 3, as the fans in attendance saluted Dale Earnhardt with the now-famous three-fingered salute from 2001. Moments later, Cope, still running 25th on the outside of Tyler Reddick and Ross Chastain, cut down a tire in Turn 3 and slid into the outside wall. “I got in the fence,” said the driver. Cope held his car against the wall until the field cleared him, and the now last-place car dropped to the apron near the stripe. “Sorry, guys, that wasn’t what I was wanting to do,” said the driver. He stopped on the apron of Turn 1, and was later checked and released from the infield care center. Attention then turned to his own entry, the #00 Mane ‘n Tail Chevrolet of Quin Houff.

It was ironic that Cope was criticized for nearly causing a wreck on Thursday as, barely ten laps later, the leaders triggered one of the largest pileups in recent Daytona 500 history. On Lap 15, a push by 6th-place Kyle Busch’s #18 M&M’s Toyota to teammate Christopher Bell in the #20 DeWalt Toyota made Bell close rapidly on Aric Almirola’s #10 Smithfield Ford, then running 3rd. Bell got out of the gas, but not until after he shunted Almirola, turning the #10 to the right into the path of Alex Bowman’s #48 Ally Bank Chevrolet. Both cars pounded the outside wall, and practically the entire remaining field tried to escape into the grass.

A massive rain storm immediately followed, and it was some time before teams had a chance to fix their cars. When the red flag came out, Jamie McMurray held 39th in the #77 Advent Health Chevrolet, followed by 38th-place William Byron in the #24 Axalta Chevrolet, 37th-place Martin Truex, Jr. in the #19 Bass Pro Shops / Tracker Boats Toyota, and 36th-place Erik Jones in the #43 Armor All Chevrolet. McMurray, Byron, and Truex all managed to complete at least one more lap, dropping Jones to 39th, along with three other drivers who didn’t make it back to pit road after the wreck: Ryan Newman in the #6 Kohler Generators Ford, David Ragan in the #36 Select Blinds Ford, and Daniel Suarez in Trackhouse’s new #99 iFly Chevrolet.

It wasn’t until Lap 30, when the race restarted, that NASCAR declared 12 drivers out of the race, including Cope and the rest of the Bottom Five.

MICHAEL MCDOWELL – 2021 DAYTONA 500 CHAMPION

The field-clearing wreck left just 29 drivers to restart the race, and opened the door for some surprising performances through the field. Joey Gase and B.J. McLeod both came within a few positions of besting their top Cup finish by taking 20th and 23rd, respectively. Josh Bilicki’s 24th was his new career-best, improving on a pair of 25th-place runs last year at Indianapolis and Kansas. Austin Cindric ran in 5th for much of the closing stages and led two laps, but his Cup debut was cut short by the last big pileup, leaving him 15th. Corey LaJoie’s 9th-place finish in the #7 Youtheory Chevrolet extends a streak of top-ten finishes in at least one Daytona race for a third straight year. Ross Chastain’s 7th-place finish was his new career-best, improving on his 10th-place run in this same race two years ago for Premium Motorsports.

All of this was secondary to the night’s race winner, Michael McDowell.

Last summer, Michael McDowell had just taken sole possession of the all-time record for most last-place finishes in Cup Series history after an early crash at Pocono. All 34 finishes have been chronicled on this website, dating back to July 2008, when this site wasn’t entirely focused on last-place finishers. Most of these runs came while driving for “start-and-park” teams like PRISM Motorsports and its later incarnations, HP Racing LLC and Phil Parsons Racing, which scored him three consecutive LASTCAR titles from 2011 through 2013. Only after this did he earn full-time rides with Leavine Family Racing in 2014, then Front Row Motorsports in 2018. Both teams allowed him to run full races, and he started to gather lead-lap finishes.

In 357 series starts, he’d never finished better than 4th, but all three of his top-five finishes came on the superspeedways. The first was a 4th for Leavine in 2017, when Aric Almirola took his own first career win in a rain-shortened event. The other two were a pair of 5th-place runs in 2019, starting with the Daytona 500, where he tangled with Clint Bowyer in the closing laps. Perhaps his best overall performance in Cup also came at Daytona on July 7, 2018, where he started 8th and led 20 laps, only to be collected in another driver’s wreck with just five laps to go in regulation. He finished 26th.

Early Monday morning, McDowell was again among the leaders, running third behind the Penske Racing duo of Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski. After multiple laps of single-file racing, McDowell followed Keselowski as he made his move into Turn 3. Contact from one car to the other sent Keselowski into Logano, and McDowell edged Chase Elliott when the caution froze the field. He also led to the stripe, and only minutes later was finally declared the winner. He only led the final lap – just the 89th lap he’d led in 14 years of Cup Series racing.

We here at LASTCAR.info would like to congratulate Michael McDowell on his victory. This moment captures the best hopes of both myself and our readers – that a last-place driver will one day find their way to the front of the pack.

LASTCAR STATISTICS
*This marked the first time the #15 finished last in the Daytona 500. However, the number finished last in two runnings of the summer race. On July 4, 1971, Dr. Don Tarr lost the engine on Tom Pistone’s #15 1970 Ford after 18 laps. On July 2, 1988, Brett Bodine was involved in a multi-car accident on Lap 2 of the Pepsi Firecracker 400, destroying his #15 Crisco / Motorcraft Ford.
*This was Cope’s first last-place finish in the Daytona 500. He did finish last in the 400-mile race one time on July 6, 1996, when his #12 Badcock Ford lost the engine after 63 laps.

THE BOTTOM FIVE
40) #15-Derrike Cope / 3 laps / crash
39) #43-Erik Jones / 13 laps / crash
38) #6-Ryan Newman / 13 laps / crash
37) #36-David Ragan / 13 laps / crash
36) #99-Daniel Suarez / 13 laps / crash

2021 LASTCAR CUP SERIES OWNER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Rick Ware Racing (1)

2021 LASTCAR CUP SERIES MANUFACTURER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Chevrolet (1)

2021 LASTCAR CUP SERIES DRIVER'S CHAMPIONSHIP


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