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Fates take the wheel at Daytona

Published Oct. 16, 2005

Last week it was Buster Douglas in Tokyo. A boxing nobody, with no chance, who slew Godzilla. Flooring a near-canonized, seemingly unwhippable Mike Tyson to win the heavyweight championship of the world. Now, it's Derrike Cope, the Buster Douglas of stock car racing. An unknown and unnoticed challenger for 499 miles of the Daytona 500 who would suddenly see a giant fall in front of him.

On a humid, 84-degree afternoon of the Florida wintertime, a congregation of 150,000 had assembled for Sunday worship at Daytona International Speedway, the sport's highest temple.

It appeared uneventful.

With nine laps to go, the pilgrims were beginning to pack, throwing out their beer empties and wrapping leftover fried chicken. Preparing for the trip home. Knowing the 500 was Dale Earnhardt's race.

A rich and famous driver, whose Chevrolet was clearly the speediest machine, Earnhardt was a black blur. He held a 30-second lead that in Daytona's fast lane meant almost two miles. Seven minutes of work remained.

Cope, the unknown and never-victorious Chevy jockey, sat in fourth place. Few paid attention. Earnhardt's lead kept widening. Chevy No.

3 was an uncatchable star, unless Daytona lighting struck.

It did. Twice.

Under a Petty-blue sky, the first lightning crack came at 478 miles. Geoff Bodine's Ford skidded on the by-then-oily roadway, causing yellow caution flags to wave. Traffic slowed, for safety's sake.

Thanks to Bodine's fateful twist, the horsepower bunch closed ranks. But still, the race was Earnhardt's. With five laps to go, the green lights flashed back on.

Running for gold.

It'd become the "Daytona 12{." Earnhardt's Chevy quickly flashed back into command. Cope couldn't cope, and neither could Terry Labonte, or Bill Elliott, or anybody in the 200th-lap chase.

But, again, Earnhardt would see Dame Fortune in his rear-view mirror. Something nasty and sharp, a piece of Sunday shrapnel, bounced against the bottom of his car, then sliced the right rear tire. A hunk of somebody's transmission housing became the second bolt of lightning.

Earnhardt's black Chevy squirmed, dropping in a heartbeat from 195 miles an hour to perhaps 55. Cope sped past, and so did Labonte's Oldsmobile, Elliott's Ford and Ricky Rudd's Chevy. Nobody was overtaking Derrike Cope now.

Buster Douglas wins Daytona.

"In racing, you learn to expect anything," Earnhardt would say. "You can be quickest, and pretty crafty, but you've also got to be lucky. You never, never know what can lay in the road."

Cope nodded, and smiled.

"The obvious isn't always obvious," said the Sunday shock trooper. "That's both our fear and a charm of auto racing. In football, if the San Francisco 49ers lead by 40 points going into the fourth quarter, there's no physical way they can lose. But, in the Daytona 500, no lead is safe, if you get unlucky.

Like Earnhardt.

In 1959, Lee Petty won the inaugural Daytona 500. To follow were stock car racing's magical names, including Junior Johnson, Fireball Roberts, Cale Yarborough, and Petty's noted son, Richard.

Never has a driver as obscure as Derrike Cope won this, the heavyweight championship of vroom-vroom. A West Coast kid whose major-league baseball dreams died when his knee blew out snags the Daytona 500 when Dale Earnhardt's tire blows out a mile from home.

After Cope won, his pit crew and other well-wishers enveloped the victorious Chevy. The unknown driver needed to get to Victory Lane, but didn't know the way. Cope asked directions over his two-way radio.

Earnhardt just went home.

In sports, miracles still do occasionally occur. That's why multimillions watch on TV. Why 150,000 pay their money, drive to Daytona, and sit in speedway dust and heat. They come not for 499 miles, but for 500.

As long as there are Buster Douglases, and Derrike Copes, they _ no matter the odds _ will keep playing the games, fighting the fights, and running the races.

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