If you’re perusing through NASCAR’s list of all-time greats – checking out the lists of most all-time winners, champions and Hall of Famers – you would be lacking at least one name. That one name among many is Jimmy Means, who, despite starting 455 Sprint Cup Series races, never took a checkered flag or a top 5 to the bank.
In fact, through his 18-year career during the most dangerous portion of the sport’s history, Means only earned three lead-lap finishes as the top dogs turned laps beyond his capabilities week-in and week-out.
However, reaching the zenith of respect in the garage area, Means’ 66th birthday on Sunday, May 29, brought a low-key, simple celebration. In other words, it fitted Means.
“Friends of mine invited [Michael Waltrip and Denny Hamlin] over to the motorhome after the race in Charlotte,” Means said. “Cooked us a big steak and just hung out for a little while. It was pretty cool.”
Now, why would there be such a high level of appreciation for someone with so few statistics behind him? Because of everything else.
The tale of Jimmy Means expands well beyond the numbers. When anyone thinks of the Alabama native, they think underdog. Even the very beginning of Means’ racing passion involved a hint of luck.
“I had a paper route when I was 14 years old,” Means said. “I was collecting on my route when this lady invited me inside because it was raining, and there was a racing program on her coffee table. And I looked at the coffee table and I said ‘This would be pretty cool.’
“It never left me. I read up on everything I could read up about racing and got the opportunity to help somebody with a late model car and went from there.”
One statement that continues to run true from Means’ beginning-to-current-day NASCAR career is his ability to help out. Dale Earnhardt, Jr., a driver keen on preserving and honoring NASCAR’s rich past, was front and center for much of Means’ driving career.
Reminiscing back to the day his father, Dale Earnhardt, introduced him to Means in the mid-1980s, the now-41-year-old hasn’t forgotten a single moment.
“I went to North Wilkesboro on a Friday or Saturday with my dad,” Earnhardt, Jr. said. “This is probably 1985. They didn’t have a garage so everybody was parked on pit road and Jimmy was beside dad. And dad introduced me to Jimmy.
“I was very little – he wasn’t an underdog kind of guy. It just so happened that Jimmy was parked there and I was kind of new to the sport. I had been coming to races as a kid but I was starting to get to the age where I was starting to understand who the drivers were.”
As Junior grew and matured through the sport, he quickly met Brad Means, Jimmy’s son, and the two became best friends while their dads were making money on the track.
“Every time I went to the racetrack, I looked for Brad,” Earnhardt said. “And every time Brad went to the racetrack, he looked for me. We would spend the entire day at the track running around together just trying to get in trouble.”
One of the biggest days in Jimmy’s Sprint Cup career came in the wake of Tim Richmond’s medical setbacks in 1987, which gave Means his first [and only] shot at a big-time ride. Racing for Rick Hendrick at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Means qualified fifth before crashing to a disappointing 40th-place finish.
Earnhardt, Jr. has said that he cried that day. NASCAR nation was gutted. The good-guy story of the afternoon was left in a crumbled pile in the garage area. Means, on the other hand, was just thankful.
“Everybody was glad that I had the opportunity and everybody was pulling for us,” Means said of that day. “It was just a good thing. It was good for Folger’s and Rick, because we got a lot of publicity which was good for me. We ran well in qualifying and unfortunately we got in a wreck.
“It’s just another thing you go through in racing. Unfortunately, we didn’t get anything else out of that but it was a good experience. It showed that with good equipment and good motors that we could run pretty well.”
Despite the time in the spotlight, Means found his highest moment on another day in 1987 at the Richmond Fairgrounds, which in his words could have opened that opportunity with Hendrick.
“We led quite a few laps at the old Richmond Fairgrounds Cup race,” he said. “We had a really good week the next week at Dover. I guess that got Rick Hendrick’s attention because we got that one chance to run the Folger’s Hendrick car at Charlotte.”
Fast-forwarding through a good 20 years of NASCAR history, that little kid playing in the infield, Dale Jr., is now piloting the No. 88 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports. Despite the success of two Daytona 500 victories and hundreds of national series top 5s, Earnhardt points to one moment with Means during Daytona Speedweeks, when he loaned a racecar to Means following a crash, calling it “one of my proudest moments.”
“We had four teams there with four back-up cars sitting in all those trailers,” Earnhardt said. “So to be able to give him a car to be able to compete that week was probably one of my proudest moments.
“I think a lot of Jimmy. It definitely keeps things in perspective and makes you appreciate how fortunate you are to have the resources we have and to have all the access to great equipment and great people. Certainly has helped keep me a little more grounded.”
With Earnhardt behind him as a loyal supporter, Means holds a strong level of regard for his support.
“It’s just pretty special,” Means said. “Him being an adult and being successful, that he has me in and still remembers the old hard times, which were good times. He just took a liking to me and I’m very proud of the fact that he still conveys that today. That’s pretty amazing.”
Another driver who has been on the receiving end of wisdom from Means has been the 23-year-old Joey Gase, who pilots the Jimmy Means Racing No. 52 Chevrolet full-time in the XFINITY Series.
“If it wasn’t for Jimmy, we probably wouldn’t be here right now,” said Gase, who started with the team in 2013. “First time I got into the XFINITY Series with Go Fas Racing, second year we lost a sponsor we thought we were going to have. Then I was looking for a ride and Jimmy gave me a chance.
“I started to make a lot of races that they maybe weren’t making before, taking care of the equipment, and we slowly went from a start-and-park team to racing full-time and doing well. Everyone knows who Jimmy Means is.”
With a well-mannered, soft-spoken youngster in his stable, Means calls the relationship a “good fit.”
“Right now, I think we’re good for each other,” Means said. “I’ve agreed to put him in the car whether we have sponsor money or not. Fortunately, he’s able to find us a little bit to keep going.”
The driver-owner pair hit an all-time high last year at Talladega Superspeedway, where Gase drove to a fifth-place result, the team’s best finish.
“He takes care of the car, gets the most out of what we have,” Means said. “It keeps me in racing, it keeps his name out there. Otherwise, there are going to be races he doesn’t run without funding. Nobody else is going to put him in that car because they don’t have funding to do it.”
Though Means doesn’t hold a steering wheel anymore, simply being a part of on-track success fills his level of desire for the sport of NASCAR.
“Everything passes you by,” he said. “Racing, as a driver, passed me by. There was one time in my career, I would’ve done anything to race. Whatever it took, hours spent, whatever.
“When that desire for driving left, I still had the desire to race and try to win races as a car owner. I get just as much enjoyment out of seeing the car run well as I did when I was driving it because I had a part in putting it to where it’s at.
As the years click by, Means’ impact on the sport has appeared to only spread. From the NASCAR legends of yesterday, current veteran Sprint Cup drivers or young XFINITY hopefuls, Means makes every day at the racetrack one of loyalty, dedication and perseverance.
Editors’ Note: In the interest of full disclosure, Zach Catanzareti has done work for the Means organization and driver Joey Gase.