Heading into the 59th running of the Daytona 500 this Sunday, it’s time again for another edition of “Throwback Thursday Theater,” in which we’ll take a look back at a race from Daytona’s past.
This week’s edition features one of the greatest upsets ever in the “Great American Race” – the 1990 Daytona 500, which saw underdog Derrike Cope pull off the win after a dominant day from Dale Earnhardt went awry with half a lap to go.
Earnhardt claimed a front row starting spot earlier in the week beside polesitter Ken Schrader, but Schrader would be forced to start the race from the back of the pack after a crash in his 125-mile qualifying race. As a result, Geoff Bodine would move up to the front row with Earnhardt.
Though Bodine led the first lap, Earnhardt took over at lap two and led the next 26 circuits. As Earnhardt held onto the lead, Schrader powered his way from the back to the front, falling in behind Earnhardt and set his sights on taking over the top spot.
At lap 27, the first caution flag of the day flew after Richard Petty spun in Turn 2. When the race went back green four laps later, Earnhardt was right back in the lead, while Schrader fell back to 15th after a long pit stop for four fresh tires.
By the time Schrader worked his way back to Earnhardt’s rear bumper, the second caution of the day came out. This time the yellow waved for a multi-car crash in Turn 1 on lap 44, which involved the cars of Phil Parsons, Alan Kulwicki, Mike Alexander, and Rob Moroso.
The lead would cycle through Jack Pennington, Mark Martin, and Derrike Cope under caution and shortly after the restart, but as he had all day long, Earnhardt was back in the lead at lap 55 and would stay there for another 36 laps.
As the race passed the midway point, it was still all Earnhardt, with the Intimidator only giving up the lead under green flag pit stop cycles and leading 77 of the next 102 laps.
During that time, Earnhardt’s closest competitor, Ken Schrader, dropped out of the race with engine trouble and 1972 Daytona 500 champion A.J. Foyt voluntarily took himself out of the race because he was getting lightheaded from the glue in his helmet.
“I guess something in the engine let go. I mean it was working good, you know, but something finally gave up. That doesn’t happen to the Hendrick team very often, but it just happened here,” said Schrader.
“I had a brand new helmet and I guess the glue that was in it just got me completely drunk. Right now, I don’t think the average person could smell it five minutes,” said Foyt. “I just got so dizzy there that I felt like I was going to injure myself or somebody else, so I just had to quit.”
“I don’t know how people can take dope and drive because talking about a drunk; I was drunk those last 20 laps and I figured park it before I hurt myself or somebody else.”
As the laps wound down, the final caution of the day flew with seven laps to go, giving everyone another shot at taking the win away from Earnhardt.
Earnhardt elected to come down pit road for fresh tires and fuel, while Cope stayed out on his old tires to try and get an advantage over the closing laps.
Though Cope had the lead when the green flag came back out, Earnhardt powered his way right back through the field and retook the top spot two laps later.
With Earnhardt back in the lead and looking unstoppable, Harold Elliott, Rusty Wallace’s crew chief provided some foreshadowing on the end of the race:
“If anybody is going to beat Earnhardt today, they’re going to have to shoot his tires out.”
Earnhardt and Cope took the white flag and powered down the backstretch for the final time before storming into Turn 3. Just as it looked like Earnhardt would be well on his way to his first Daytona 500 win, he ran over a piece of a bell housing from a lapped machine, which shredded his tire and caused him to drop out of the running for the win.
With Earnhardt out of the picture, Cope was able to hold off Terry Labonte and Ricky Rudd through the remainder of the final lap to cross the line and win not only his first Daytona 500, but his first win ever in NASCAR, pulling off the upset of the century.
“I’ll tell you what, in my wildest dreams, you always come down here with optimism, but this is the one that eludes everybody. Darrell Waltrip did it last year for the first time in his career. It is a pleasure to have the Purolator Chevrolet Lumina up front and to take the win like that. It’s a dream come true,” said Cope from victory lane.
“Earnhardt was dominant all day long. There was no way I was going to get him. I was just trying to hold off Terry Labonte, but he blew a tire going into the last turn. He did a heck of a job holding that car in line and I went to the bottom side and had the win. Dale was the dominant car, but the Purolator Chevrolet Lumina is number one in victory lane.”
Meanwhile, back in the garage, Earnhardt was left wondering what could have been as another Daytona 500 fell from his grasp.
“We ran over some debris and cut a right rear tire down. Just a quarter of a lap away from victory. Not much you can do about it,” said Earnhardt.
Also of note in the 1990 Daytona 500 is the fact that the film “Days of Thunder” was filming during the race that day, with the fictional No. 18 and No. 51 cars bringing the full field total to 44 cars instead of the usual 42.