After taking the checkered flag at Sunday’s Daytona 500, Denny Hamlin’s first thought might have been one of satisfaction in winning the iconic race for the second time in four years, or simply relief at having avoided the late-race crashes that took out much of the field. Instead, Hamlin immediately pointed to a sticker on his No. 11 Toyota that honored the memory of the late J.D. Gibbs.
“This one’s for J.D.,” Hamlin said. “We’re desperately going to miss him.”
The son of Joe Gibbs, the owner of Hamlin’s team and the Super Bowl-winning coach of the Washington Redskins, J.D. Gibbs died in January at age 49 of a degenerative neurological disease. As fate would have it, not only did Hamlin win the season’s first Cup Series race for Joe Gibbs Racing, but the team swept the podium, with Kyle Busch and Erik Jones finishing second and third.
J.D. Gibbs had been an integral part of JGR since its inception in 1991, serving over the years as a crew member, driver and team president before stepping away in 2015 to cope with his illness. Members of the JGR team held up a banner Sunday during Lap 11, corresponding to the jersey number Gibbs wore as a William & Mary football player, and his 78-year-old father could hardly contain his emotions after the race.
“What happened here is really unreal,” Gibbs said. “I’m just thrilled. I think J.D. had the best view of everything.”
This time, Hamlin did not need the closest finish in Daytona history, as occurred when he won in 2016, but he did need overtime. The final 20 laps of the race were marred by two red flags and five wrecks, none bigger than one that occurred on Lap 190 of the 200-lap event.
Twenty-one cars were affected by the carnage, which began when Paul Menard turned Matt DiBenedetto, sparking — quite literally — a massive chain reaction. That was hardly the end of the damage, though, as more wrecks further thinned the field.
“I wrecked a lot of cars. I feel bad about that,” Menard said.
Defending Cup Series champion Joey Logano came in fourth, after which he said of J.D. Gibbs, “As bad as I want to win it, it is pretty cool to think that the first race after his passing, to see those guys one, two, three, it just says he’s up there watching and maybe gave [those] guys a little extra boost there at the end.”
Logano, who raced for JGR from 2009 to 2012, added that “what J.D. has done for my career is the reason why I’m sitting here today.” Hamlin, who was discovered by Gibbs while racing on a lower-tier circuit in the early 2000s, offered similar thoughts.
“The whole family, they did so much for me over the course of my career. . . . He meant a lot to me, and it’s hard for me not getting choked up because I’ve been choked up about 100 times about it,” Hamlin said. “Just to have [Gibbs’s widow] Melissa and all the kids here, it’s just crazy.”
“It is the most emotional and biggest win I’ve ever had in my life, in anything,” said Joe Gibbs, who won three Super Bowls with the Redskins and has four Cup Series championships. “It was the most important night in my occupational life. I know J.D. and everybody in my family was emotional.”
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