In the world of pro sports, Winston Cup stock car driver Derrike Cope sounds almost too good to be true.
"I don't drink, don't smoke and don't do drugs," he said last night, at P.J. Crickett's while sipping club soda. "I never even tried pot. You can't do that kind of stuff if you're going to do sports. I was probably too good as a kid, but I was always into sports."
Baseball was his first love. He was being scouted by the Chicago Cubs and the Orioles, until a home plate collision ruined his knee during his junior year in college.
"Once I realized I couldn't be 100 percent in baseball," he said, "I decided to do something else. I didn't want to play in the minor leagues. I wanted to be a major leaguer."
And now he is.
The Winston Cup stock car tour rolls into Dover, Del., today, and Cope, who was the 1990 winner of the Daytona 500, is the defending champion in this Sunday's Budweiser 500.
Cope is one of those rare commodities on the Winston Cup tour. He has a degree in history from Whitman University, making him one of a kind. And he also has taken speech and marketing classes, all at the insistence of his father, who was a successful Top Fuel drag racer from the late 1950s until the early '70s.
"My dad was adamant that I go to college," said Cope, who watched as several of his high school teammates in Spanaway, Wash., signed minor-league contracts with the Orioles. "Basically, my dad said, 'You need an education. If you're really good enough, you'll go after college.' I've thought a lot about it, and I still think he was right. I've got a very good education that can help me do a lot of other things."
Not that he's planning any drastic moves. Baseball didn't happen for him, but big-league stock car racing has.
Last season's performance has brought a three-year, top-of-the-line contract with Purolator. And while a new engine program has made him start the season at least 10 yards behind the line of scrimmage, Cope isn't in any hurry to jump ship.
A year ago, he was using engines produced by the Rick Hendrick organization. He was paying top dollar for them, but after his two victories, the engine power fell off.
"I felt like, power-wise, after we'd won twice and they hadn't won at all, that we were getting the lowest power of those motors," he said. "We weren't getting a bad motor, we just weren't getting the same motor Kenny Schrader or Darrell Waltrip were getting and . . . I could feel a difference. To avoid the situation, we needed to control our own destiny. The only way was to do the engines in house."
Doing that can be a slow painful process. "We just don't have the power," he said. "It's like bringing up young kids on a major-league baseball team. It takes time and we're trying to rebuild."
Cope's early immersion in baseball gives him an unusual perspective on stock car racing.
He sees parallels in a lot of places.
"When it comes to winning," said Cope, 32, "there isn't much difference between baseball and stock car racing."
In both cases, he believes, good teams win in the clutch.
"When it's 3-2 and you have two outs, three men on base and the pitcher strikes someone out or the outfield makes a game-saving play, that's clutch play," he said. "That's rising to the occasion, that's staying poised and not letting pressure get to you."
Cope and his 1990 Daytona 500 victory are a point in fact. Throughout the race, he had the third-best car. Schrader and Dale Earnhardt had the best cars, but Schrader's engine let go and Earnhardt lost a tire, leaving Cope in line for victory.
"Everyone called it a fluke," he recalled. "But it was just likplaying baseball. When Earnhardt lost the tire, I stayed very calm, very focused, and concentrated on what I had to do."
He could have made an error. Instead, he kept "the race car under me and it was just like hitting a home run. People called it a fluke, but it came down to making the right decisions, having the crew make the right calls and knowing how to win."
At Dover, four months later, it was different. Cope's team felt it had already proven something by winning Daytona, but others thought differently.
Maybe Daytona was a fluke and would be the only race his team ever won. After all, of the 141 men who have won Winston Cup races, 57 of them have won only once in their careers.
Dover proved a lot of things to a lot of people. Mostly it proved Cope was not a one-hit wonder.
"We proved that if someone counted us out, we could bite," Cope said. "It solidified the fact of our own belief in ourselves. It proved we could go out and win races. It not only gave us credibility with others, but within ourselves and that has given us confidence."
Cope dominated Dover last June, even though at one point he ran out of gas. "But even in that time of grief we stayed poised and came through," he said. "Like I said, it's just like baseball. Good teams win in the clutch."