DOVER, Del. -- Ever since he got off the airplane a Baltimore-Washington International Airport on Thursday night, Derrike Cope has been smiling and talking confidently about successfully defending his championship in the Budweiser 500 today at Dover Downs.
That's right, Cope loves the Monster Mile at Dover, and he doesn't mind telling everybody.
"I know a lot of people hate this track," Cope said. "But I've always enjoyed driving here. It's one of my tracks. I always run good at Dover, Daytona, Michigan [Brooklyn] and Phoenix."
Cope, 32, is a refreshing change for Dover officials who are accustomed to having the NASCAR drivers criticize their steeply banked, oval mile track.
"Dover allows you to manipulate your car more than a lot of other tracks," he said. "A driver can really make a difference at Dover. You have to be smooth but really drive hard."
Many drivers despise the long high turns, which force them to decide whether to drive hard from start to finish or to save some car for the end.
Cope says the turns suit his style.
"I like to drive hard into the turns, and that is what you have to do," he said. "This is a track that challenges the driver, and I like that."
Cope, who will drive a Purolator Chevrolet Lumina (No. 10), said he isn't concerned about the recent heat wave in Dover.
"I won't be wearing any cool suits or special helmets," he said. "I'm just going to concentrate on winning the race. It would have to get awful hot to bother me here. I'm used to the heat and humidity here."
Cope, the 1990 Daytona 500 winner, is so focused on winning the 12:15 p.m. Budweiser 500 that he didn't even let a disappointing qualifying run Friday bother him. He failed to make the top 20 qualifying spots after turning in a fastest lap of 140.318 mph. He will start from the 24th spot.
"We'll be all right for the race," Cope said. "The car is working good, but it was just a little bit too loose. I drove it pretty hard into Turn 2 and got sideways. I had to backpedal a few times, and to run the time we did I guess was pretty good."
For Cope, there never is guessing about what kind of strategy tuse at Dover Downs.
"You have to drive hard all day," he said. "If anybody says thelay back at the start, they're lying. What they might mean is that you don't want to abuse your car early. You want to save some car for the end, but you still drive hard."
Cope captured the first-place prize money of $55,050 in the Budweiser 500 last year, finishing 1.24 seconds ahead of Ken Schrader with a race-record average speed of 123.960.
"The car [Purolator Chevrolet] was hooked up incredibly," Cope said. "You only find your car dialed in like that once in a blue moon, and then you have to capitalize on it. We might have lapped the field if we hadn't run out of gas. But we battled back, stayed poised and came through to win. Maybe [the car] can come through for us again [today]."
NOTES: Veteran driver Richard Petty exonerated the Dover track from any fault in his accident coming out of Turn 2 in Friday's qualifying runs. "It wasn't the racetrack's fault; it was the driver's fault," he said. "I went tearing out of the second turn and got back on the accelerator and pushed out a little too far. I tried to run through there wide-open, and I paid for it. We were running good until I tried to qualify." Petty hit the wall and damaged the front end of his Pontiac Grand Prix, preventing him from finishing the qualifying lap. "I had been able to run hard coming out of Turn 2 throughout practice," he said. "But I kept edging up, edging up. I finally got up too far." Petty qualified yesterday and will start from the 31st position. . . . Morgan Shepherd led yesterday's qualifications with a 141.426 lap and will start 21st. Others qualifying yesterday were Sterling Marlin, 22nd, and Mickey Gibbs, 28th.
1. Michael Waltrip, Huntersville, N.C., Pontiac Grand Prix, 143.392; 2. Rusty Wallace, Concord, N.C., Pontiac Grand Prix, 142.789;3. Rick Mast, Rockridge Baths, Va., Oldsmobile Cutlass, Alan Kulwicki, Charlotte, N.C., Ford Thunderbird, 142.648;5. Mark Martin, Jamestown, N.C., Ford Thunderbird, 142.625;6. Ernie Irvan, Rockwell, N.C., Chevrolet Lumina, 142.535;7. Harry Gant, Taylorsville, N.C., Oldsmobile Cutlass, 142.473;8. Terry Labonte, Archdale, N.C., Oldsmobile Cutlass, 142.304;9. Rick Wilson, Cornelius, N.C., Oldsmobile Cutlass, 142.158;10. Dale Earnhardt, Doolie, N.C., Chevrolet Lumina, 142.096.