On This Date in 1987: The Opportunity of a Lifetime for Jimmy Means

October 11, 2017

Seth and Sutton Sharp

Earlier this season, Ryan Preece was presented the opportunity of a lifetime as he got to drive for Joe Gibbs in the XFINITY Series. As the sport currently lives and dies by sponsorship, it was a rare opportunity to see someone who is considered an underdog finally get a chance to prove themselves in a top-level car.

Back in the 1980’s it wasn’t rare to see an independent driver pull out a solid finish, especially at a short track. Jimmy Means proved to be a classic example of this while driving for his own team.

The 1987 Winston Cup season saw Means pull out top-15s at Richmond, Martinsville, Charlotte and Dover. That was just over the first 11 races of the season. Means struggled throughout the middle portion of the season before finishing 19th at Bristol. Two weeks later he led 21 laps at Richmond en-route to a ninth place finish.

His success at Richmond while driving on such a small budget led to an chance of a lifetime as he was offered a car for the race at Charlotte by Rick Hendrick. The car, sponsored by Folgers, sported Means’ familiar No. 52, a gesture that allowed Means to still gain car owners points worth money in 1988.

Benny Parsons, Means’ teammate for the weekend, was not shy when talking about the pressure Means faced that weekend. “I think it’s a tremendous amount of pressure. He only has one race to prove to you and to those people that he is a race-car driver. One shot to prove that he is as good as Darrell Waltrip, Terry Labonte, Rusty Wallace or anybody else out there, but just having one race to prove it is tough.”.

Fellow driver Bobby Allison wasn’t as much worried about Means on the track as he was about the extra attention that Means would receive. “I know he’s been barraged by the press. I know everyone wants to hear his story but that’s the toughest part about it all.”

With Means finally driving a top-level car, he shifted his attention from just making the field to how far up he could put his No. 52 on the starting grid. Means showed Hendrick that he made the right choice as he qualified fifth for the Oakwood Homes 500. This was huge for Means as his previous best career start was an eighth at Nashville in 1977.

Means crew chief for the race Harry Hyde expected Means to be conservative out of the gate. He also set a goal for Means to finish in the top-20 but said he thought that if Means could pull out a top-ten that it would be super.

Means continued to prove to be the story of the weekend on race-day as Eli Gold and Jerry Punch gushed at the start of the TV broadcast about the opportunity presented to the driver. The crowd gave Means a standing ovation as he was announced during driver-introductions.

When the green flag finally waved at Charlotte, Means followed Hyde’s advice and drove the start of the race conservatively.

Unfortunately for Means, his chance was short lived as he was caught up in a crash on lap-20 which ended his day. The incident also sent Derrike Cope, Buddy Baker and Greg Sacks home.

After the incident, Means recounted what happened. “When I started to see it, I already saw two or three cars sideways. I tried to go to the bottom and I couldn’t go back up.” He finished 40th.

Two weeks later Means returned to the track after an off-week for the Winston Cup Series. On Friday he still was the talk of the garage.

Means took the incident hard, but the classy driver took it in stride. “It was a big let down. I was totally dejected. For all the publicity and all of the hype, it was over in ten minutes. We hadn’t even made a pit-stop yet. That was about as low as I’ve been in a long time.”.

Despite the disappointing end to his storybook chance, Means tried to stay positive “That one race isn’t going to make me or break me. I made some great friends. It was a good experience. Maybe something big will come out of it.”.

Despite showing his potential while driving for Hendrick, Means career ended in 1993 after 139 more Cup Series starts. All but one of those came for himself, with the other coming for Junie Donlavey in 1988.

Maybe something big didn’t come out of his opportunity of a lifetime, but the legend of Jimmy Means will last forever.

Updated: May 16, 2018 — 10:35 pm

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