StarCom Racing is in its first full season of existence with 1990 Daytona 500 champion Derrike Cope calling the shots as team manager. Through the first 15 races, it’s been a battle.
Prior to Daytona this February, StarCom acquired the No. 27 Richard Childress Racing charter from last season. That ensured their No. 00 car would qualify for a spot on the grid in every race. Jeffrey Earnhardt kicked off the season with a 21st-place finish in the Daytona 500. Four races later, he was booted from the team.
Since then, Landon Cassill has piloted the No. 00 car in all but one race (Talladega), scoring three top-25 finishes. He has a best effort of 20th at Bristol Motor Speedway, finishing two laps off the pace as the team sits 34th in owner points. Cope himself has competed in a pair of events, scoring a best effort of 34th at Pocono Raceway.
Frontstretch caught up with the veteran driver to discuss where StarCom Racing is as an organization and what he expects during the regular season’s second half.
Dustin Albino, Frontstretch.com: How would you assess the year as a whole for StarCom Racing in its first year of existence?
Cope: I would have to say that we are making inroads. I certainly think at the beginning of the year, we were rather poor and we didn’t do a good job in a lot of aspects. I think wrecking our racecars put us behind with the amount of manpower we have. Since then, I think we’ve righted the ship with that and have ran a whole lot better. I think we could leapfrog some of the teams we compete against and we’ve gotten a lot closer to the competition.
I think we’re inconsistent [at times]. That’s what we’re working on and settling in a package that can really work for us and find the relevant speed. We’ve got some work to do, but we’re definitely making gains.
Albino: How does the team benefit from running two cars as opposed to one?
Cope: The matter in which you run a second car is not how you run the first car. Really, we run an engine that has more use and we run some used tires and we do things to try and get the program where it can still go to the racetrack and we can learn something, but it’s not going to run in a manner in the sense of what the [No.] 00 does.
We realize where we can run sponsorship-wise, funding-wise that we can help with the cost of the first team that can maybe hire more people and we can try new things, buy some new things that can help us try to make us go faster with that car. It’s an overall process to try to move the team forward. Sometimes, it doesn’t do as well or look as good and not run at the same magnitude. Until you have full sponsorship to do that, you’re not able to.
Albino: How do you decide what races you are going to drive?
Cope: A lot of it depends on who is at our disposal or who has money put together to do some things or if I really just want to go someplace. That gives me the right to do what I want to do. I pretty much make all the decisions. If I want to do something, I can do it.
Right now, we’re looking at what I want to do and what the company needs. If not, a lot of things don’t happen and a lot of decisions need to be made and I make them. Sometimes, it’s more difficult for me to drive when I have to really mind the store and make sure money is being spent in the right fashion and not abused.
Albino: How much of the team are you in charge of on a day-to-day basis?
Cope: I don’t really know what my job title should be in regards to what I do, but I am doing a lot of things. My wife [Elyshia] and I pretty much manage the people, it’s basically a two-person show. We run the daily operations, making sure we have the right parts and pieces or sending the racecars out to be repaired or having body work done. I do shock absorbers, so I’ll do everything shock absorber-wise. I oversee what’s going on next door. Usually, I’m one of the first guys there and I like to close the door myself until the job is done.
Pretty much, I’m going to be a hands-on person for pretty much every aspect of our business. When it comes to the relationship with ECR and Richard Childress Racing, that goes directly through me. Any time we have to deal with an engine situation, put valve springs on an engine or change an engine, it all goes through me and my relationship with Richie Gilmore [President of ECR Engines].
It comes to our relationship with RCR and working closely with them as a whole. I’m pretty much involved in every aspect of it. I have a lot on my plate, so it makes it difficult to do other things. If you are trying to get two race teams running in three days, it’s challenging, especially with the amount of people. We have 14 people total, that includes my wife and I. We’re doing a lot.
Albino: What has Landon brought to the team this year?
Cope: I think some consistency, certainly. He has a good feel for the racecars and a good sense of the balance that the cars need. I think that helps us a whole lot to know whether or not were off in other areas or if the balance is good in the car or if we don’t have the speed and it’s more geometry related or aero related or some other variables.
He seems to have a good sense of the racecars. We’re very pleased with the relationship and he has been taking care of the equipment. I think that’s one thing that we need as well. We’ve been bringing racecars back without a lot of damage and that allows us to work on the cars and try some more things for the following week instead of changing the car around and putting another one into the system. For a small team, you need to pick your battles and it’s allowing us to be more selective about what we bring to the racetrack and the manner in which we do it.
Albino: How much of an overachievement have his top-25 finishes been for this team?
Cope: I think it certainly is an overachievement. I think there has been a lot of overachieving this year to be quite honest. If you’re a realist in this business and understand what you’re up against – this is the Cup level and it’s the best of the best. We’re just starting out with a small race team that’s doing it off the basics and past knowledge. We don’t have a notebook to go off of, we’re just going off of we as racers have knowledge of and can work with.
I would definitely say we’ve overachieved this year and if we can keep doing what we’re doing – I feel like even competing against the teams at the back that we’re running, I think we’re gaining. I think we’ve made gains and are learning things. We are really optimistic. We are very pleased and as racers, it’s never good enough, but I certainly feel that we are pointed in the right direction. We’re not alarmed at this point. We’re gaining on it and making good choices and we just have to be methodical in our approach and keep going.
Albino: What happened with Jeffrey Earnhardt leaving the team after the fifth race of 2018?
Cope: It wasn’t really a fallout. It was just a situation where I don’t think we were all that good at the beginning, either. I think that was difficult with him and the racecars weren’t working well, and he obviously wrecked some racecars that put us behind. Really, he’s a good little racecar driver. I think for a young team starting out it was a little more than what the situation could bear. The timing wasn’t there for us to get off the mark with.
Some of the numbers [funding] just didn’t happen that they thought were going to be there. It was more of a mutual situation that we had to do something to continue trying to put numbers on the board. Sometimes, too, crew chiefs and drivers don’t see eye-to-eye and I think that was maybe the situation early, and you have to choose. I’ve been a racecar driver for a long time, and I’ve bounced around to different teams. There’s always a scapegoat.
Unfortunately in this business, somebody has to leave at some point in time when something transpires. You have to make change and that’s the only way your business can grow. You need to find change, continuity and cohesiveness between personnel, drivers and crew chiefs. There is a fine line and it’s a very difficult process. Sometimes, there are casualties.
Albino: What are the teams goals going into the second half of the season?
Cope: I think it’s just a continuation to what we’ve implemented to this point to close the gap. Time over distance, trying to make headway, less laps down, trying to be more proficient in that regard. We need to find our way a little bit more instead of relying on certain parameters of the chassis itself as far as geometry and things that we are using as fixtures. We are trying to find something we can land on and can stick with and trying to define certain elements within the equipment side for what’s going to be the best bet for us.
That’s really what we have to do for the remainder of the year, and build inventory. We need to build inventory and refine things we’re doing at the track. It’s a little mundane and not as exciting. We’re in trial and error mode and we don’t have the luxury of other engineering things yet. Obviously, we would hope we can become a little more proficient by years end and continue implementing engineering at that juncture. We’re just not quite ready for it. We are, but yet we aren’t. We just have a lot on our plate right now, and it’s hard enough to just turn around our cars in two or three days than starting to work on something new. Hopefully by August or September, I think we can hone in on where we are at and can give us a better grade by then.
Albino: How much longer do you want to continue racing, and how much of a disadvantage is it not being in the car on a weekly basis?
Cope: Honestly, from a driving standpoint, I don’t think that much about it. I’m too busy doing so much more, so it’s hard to put to the driving side of things into perspective. That’s been hard for me to realize because it’s something I’ve done for a long time. This sport is hard to put down. I think you see it so many times. We do a lot more than we should at times, and it’s hard to put down. I love doing what I’m doing. It’s tough getting in a racecar when you haven’t driven but one time or whatever and it’s hard to find the speed or what areas you need to pick up. Especially when your team is behind as well, it’s two-fold. It’s a very difficult process, but I’m trying to make the race team change and we will see how things play out and whether or not I can get back in the car and do some races.
I would love to go Daytona or Talladega. I feel like I would make a real difference, but now it’s all about changing and helping us move forward as a whole.