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Delma Cowart, colorful independent driver known for Daytona qualifying attempts, dies at 80

Delma Cowart, the colorful independent driver known for his valiant low-budget attempts to qualify for the Daytona 500, has died. He was 80.

Cowart’s passing was reported by his daughter on social media.

“Somebody asked me about my career once,” Cowart said in a 1998 interview with the Associated Press. “I told him I never won a race, but I never lost a party.”

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That phrase became Cowart’s calling card in a NASCAR Cup Series career that spanned 17 years. Cowart failed to qualify or withdrew from more races (61) than he appeared in (21), often fielding car No. 0 in his attempts. “It’s neither negative or positive,” he once said.

His best finish was 17th at Daytona International Speedway in the summer of 1982. Cowart last attempted to make the Daytona 500 field in 1997, crashing in the 125-mile qualifying race and taking contender Geoff Bodine out with him as he was being lapped. He made the field for The Great American Race four times.

Cowart remained a popular figure for his engaging personality and his willingness to raise a glass with fans and locals. His unofficial retirement came before the 1998 season in a corner booth with his name on it at the former Whiskey Pete’s bar in Daytona Beach.

“I’m a dinosaur,” Cowart told the AP. “There ain’t no room for guys like me no more. To me, racing was a hobby. You gotta be professional now.”

Cowart was a swimming pool contractor from Savannah, Georgia, by trade. Racing was his pastime. He often competed with an all-volunteer crew and modest means, which left him as an underdog as the sport grew.

“The only way I can answer that is why do gamblers gamble?” Cowart said when asked what pushed him to keep racing. “I’m a racer, man, that’s all I know.”

Cowart leaves the sport with a legacy of colorful quotes and sayings.

— “One time, my spotter asked me about a wreck in Turn 2 and I told him, ‘what wreck?’ By the time I got around to it, they’d had plenty of time to clean it all up.”

— “The Lord watches over idiots and drunks. So I had ’em covered on both ends.”

— “It’s pretty simple. All the big races pay the most money, and if you luck up and win the race, well, last place pays about $48,000. And Lord knows I can use the money. I’ve got three ex-wives. I’m so broke, I can’t pay attention.”

— “I just smashed it to the floor and told the good Lord that if He’d help me get through Turns 1 and 2, I’d take it from there.”

— “You know I never get down about it all. This is a dream that came true for me and for my guys, too. The worst crime you can commit is never to try.”