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Earnhardt Says Jimmy Means Meant a Lot To Him

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, April 12 2009

Dale Earnhardt Jr. credits Jimmy Means for much of his development as a human being. (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Dale Earnhardt Jr. credits Jimmy Means for much of his development as a human being. (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images for NASCAR)

By Rick Minter | Senior Writer

Gladeville, Tn. – NASCAR’s biggest star and the people of Huntsville, Ala., have something in common these days. They both recognize Huntsville resident Jimmy Means as a true American hero.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. for years has been vocal and enthusiastic in his support of Means, a journeyman driver in the series now known as Sprint Cup but who now fields under-funded cars in the Nationwide Series.

The Huntsville folks are making their affection official Monday, inducting Means into the Huntsville/Madison County Athletic Hall of Fame.

Veteran Huntsville Times reporter Mark McCarter says Means is the first race driver inducted into the Hall.

On Saturday at Nashville Superspeedway, where his car failed to qualify for the 300-miler, Means seemed proud to be honored by the folks in his hometown. He seemed to be especially happy that he wouldn’t have to speak at the ceremony.

But he wasn’t reluctant to talk about his relationship with Earnhardt, who often roamed the pit area with Mean’s son, Brad.

  “I was always his hero when he was a little boy,” Means said of Earnhardt. “He used to pick up old spark plugs and lug nuts and bring them to me. I didn’t use the plugs, but I did use the lug nuts.

“And there are some Victory Lane photos where Dale Jr. is wearing an Alka-Seltzer hat.”

 Alka-Seltzer was the long-time sponsor of Means’ No. 52 car.

 Earnhardt still stays as close as possible with his old hero.

“To this day, if he sees me in the garage, he never walks by without speaking.” Means said.

In a 2006 interview at Lowe’s Motor Speedway, Earnhardt Jr. posed for photos with Means and talked about his childhood days when he rooted for Means, who ran 455 Cup races without a victory, while his own father was winning multiple races every year.  

“He was my favorite driver besides my father,” Earnhardt said. “It was amazing to me how he did everything with nothing.”

Like others in the sport, Earnhardt was heartened in October of 1987, when Earnhardt’s current car owner, Rick Hendrick, offered Means one of his best cars for the 500 miler at Lowe’s Motor Speedway.

Means had caught Hendrick’s eye at Richmond the month before, when he drove his underfunded Pontiac into the lead on three occasions before running out of new tires and finishing eighth.

Means didn’t disappoint in qualifying. He was fifth fastest in the Chevy that had been driven earlier that season by Tim Richmond.

Earnhardt, 13 at the time, watched the race from his family’s condo overlooking the track.

“They started the race and Jimmy was driving like he was in his own equipment,” he said. “He was taking it easy, fell back a couple of spots, just riding there.”

Then came the wreck that ended any hope Means had of parlaying the one-shot deal into a career break.

“There were probably 15 cars in the wreck,” Earnhardt said. “Daddy was in it. A bunch of cars wadded up.”

Earnhardt didn’t mind seeing his dad’s car knocked out. Seeing Means wreck was altogether different.

 “I cried and cried and cried,” he said. “I just couldn’t believe it. A man dug so hard for so long to have a chance like that. How could this world be like that? It hurt me for a long time.”

Means said it hurt him too.

“It’s a shame something else didn’t come out of it,” he said. “But that’s life.”

Earnhardt said watching Means’ race on a shoe-string budget had a lasting effect on him. Maybe Means is the reason Earnhardt, despite his popularity in the sport, remains relatively grounded in many ways.

“I’ve got a lot of respect for him, and maybe some way, somehow, just by knowing Jimmy and having spent some time close to him has helped me appreci ate things a little more,” he said. “Maybe I wouldn’t have turned out on the good side that I did.”

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, April 12 2009
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