DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – As cars sat under two red flags during Sunday’s Daytona 500, the No. 11 pit box of Denny Hamlin began accumulating more people in its vicinity. Some folks were smiling, many were nervous – and all had their eyes glued to the screen when the cars began rolling again for the final two-lap shootout in overtime with Hamlin in the lead.
When the Joe Gibbs Racing mainstay crossed the start-finish line first to grab the checkered flag, the box erupted with emotion; crew guys jumped off the wall and one sprayed water in the air. Someone shouted, “We did it for J.D.!” There were hugs and high-fives.
And there were tears, too.
J.D. Gibbs’ widow, Melissa Gibbs, stood at the corner of the pit box, her hands on her face and tears in her eyes, her sons around her celebrating.
“J.D. is on that car,” said team owner Coach Joe Gibbs, amidst embraces and cheers. “Unbelievable.”
This was more than a victory, more than a Daytona 500 win or even breaking Hamlin’s 47-race winless streak — Sunday night went beyond any of that for the Joe Gibbs Racing family.
That race was for Joe’s son and Joe Gibbs Racing co-founder J.D. Gibbs, who passed away at age 49 from degenerative neurological disease Jan. 11.
“It’s the most emotional and the biggest win I’ve ever had in my life, in anything,” Joe Gibbs said.
“J.D. built our race team, was the guy that ran day‑to‑day operations for 27 years. He invested his occupational life in our race team. And as a part of that, he went up to purchase some late model stuff from Denny and struck up a relationship with Denny, put him in a test, put him in a truck, put him in an Xfinity car at Darlington, and finally he said, ‘We need to sign this guy.’ … And then to say, J.D.’s favorite number was 11 when he raced. That’s what he had. Denny’s number is 11. Denny put J.D. over the door post on that car, and to have that take place, everything that took place tonight, everybody knows, we’ve been to Daytona 27 times. We had won twice before. …
“It was just an unbelievable night, unbelievable crowd.”
For Joe Gibbs Racing to take home the Harley J. Earl trophy mere weeks after J.D.’s passing was special. But as Joe Gibbs alluded to, it was even more meaningful that the victory came from Hamlin, who has long spoke of his close relationship with J.D.
“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 Melissa and all the kids here, it’s just crazy. Joe and his whole family and what they’ve done for my career – to bring them back to Victory Lane again is just amazing. …
“The whole family – they did so much for me over the course of my career. This one is for J.D. We are desperately going to miss him the rest of our lives.
“His legacy still lives on through Joe Gibbs Racing and (I’m) proud to do this for them.”
The signs of J.D. were everywhere Sunday; his oldest son, Miller, wore the same Interstate Batteries race shirt that his father wore when he won the Daytona 500 as a tire changer in 1993. Each race car in the field carried a J.D. Gibbs decal on the driver’s side and Hamlin’s winning car bore an additional sticker on the B-post for JD Gibbs Legacy, the foundation established in J.D.’s honor that supports Young Life Ministry.
J.D. was also honored at Lap 11 – his favorite number – with a tribute in Sunday’s Daytona 500. During the lap, Joe Gibbs Racing pit crews stood on pit wall, holding a J.D. banner bearing countless signatures.
And when the checkered flag waved at race’s end, the scoreboard showed that Joe Gibbs Racing – in perfect, storybook fashion – had swept the top three spots as Kyle Busch finished second and Erik Jones rallied for third.
1-2-3 for JD ❤️ pic.twitter.com/jM4WD9BnAD
— Dave Alpern (@PERNSKI) February 18, 2019
“Any time you can run 1-2 or 1-2-3, 1-2-3-4, whatever it is, it’s a good sign for your company and for your team,” Jones said. “For me, I knew J.D. very early in my career at JGR, when I first got into Xfinity part time in 2014. I didn’t get to spend much with him, but great guy. My father was a big fan of J.D. and what he was doing at Joe Gibbs Racing, and I think you’re hard‑pressed to find anybody who would have a bad thing to say about J.D.”
Indeed, J.D.’s impact went beyond the walls of Joe Gibbs Racing; it was evident Sunday that he had touched many more in the garage during his lifetime. That included fourth-place finisher Joey Logano, who had been chasing JGR’s Hamlin and Busch for the victory in the waning laps of the “Great American Race.”
“I’m not a Gibbs driver, but what J.D. has done for my career is the reason why I’m sitting here today,” Logano said. “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 1-2-3, it just says he’s up there watching and maybe gave you guys a little extra boost there at the end.”
Some could say Hamlin won solely because of his restrictor plate prowess or Joe Gibbs Racing’s power under the hood. Others may claim it was due to Lady Luck bestowing favor upon Hamlin at the most tumultuous of race tracks.
But Joe Gibbs would likely disagree with most of that. This win was too special for coincidence.
“I guess everybody could say, ‘Well, that just happened.’ I don’t believe that just happened,” he said. “I honestly believe it was ‑‑ I think the Lord looked down on us, and I know J.D. and everybody in my family was emotional. …
“The whole thing was just a special memory for me, and it’s one I’ll never forget, and it was the most important night of my occupational life.”