DAYTONA BEACH, Florida — Three weeks before the Daytona 500, Joe Gibbs and his wife Pat were at the Davidson College Arena paying tribute to the life of their son J.D. in a public memorial service. J.D. had died 13 days earlier on Jan. 12 at the too-young age of 49 because of a degenerative neurological condition.
Sunday, the former Washington Redskins coach turned NASCAR team owner was celebrating in victory lane with Denny Hamlin after Hamlin’s second Daytona 500 win. J.D.’s favorite number was No. 11, the number that’s on Hamlin’s car. And J.D.’s name was above the door on the car that Hamlin took to victory lane.
The win, Gibbs believes, was no coincidence.
“I guess everybody can say that just happened,” Gibbs said. “I don’t believe that just happened. I honestly believe I think the Lord looked down on us.
“Everybody in my family was emotional. I called home to Pat. I called sponsors that were emotional, too. It was just an unbelievable night. Unbelievable crowd. The whole thing was just a special memory for me and it’s one I’ll never forget and it’s the most important night of my occupational life.”
Not only did Hamlin win, but teammates Kyle Busch and Erik Jones finished second and third. It was the first time a team had finished 1-2-3 in the Daytona 500 since 1997.
Joe Gibbs is a man of strong faith. He said Friday that he felt J.D. would be watching from above on Sunday.
“God in his word said that those that have gone on before are in heaven cheering us on,” Gibbs said. “I don’t want to let J.D. down, and I just really appreciate how many people here prayed.”
J.D. Gibbs was the guy who ran Joe Gibbs Racing’s day-to-day operations since the team first put a Cup Series car on the track in 1992. Sunday’s Daytona 500 was the first race without him. On Lap 11, all four of Gibbs’ teams stood on pit road with banners honoring J.D. As a camera focused in on Joe Gibbs for the television broadcast on that lap, his eyes closed, the power of the moment clear on his face.
“It’s the most emotional and the biggest win I’ve had in my life in anything,” Gibbs said.
That includes coaching two teams to Super Bowl victories in 1983, 1988 and 1992 and any of his other 150-plus wins in the NFL. And it includes the race team’s first win, where J.D. was part of the pit crew.
J.D. was a former football player so Joe decided he could use J.D.’s athleticism and put him in the crew as a tire changer for the 1993 Daytona 500. As the team’s driver Dale Jarrett was running up front as the race wound down, Joe realized that his son could play a pivotal role in Jarrett’s success.
“Then all of a sudden it dawned on me, this is going to come down to the last pit stop,” Gibbs said Friday. “My son is changing tires. I was looking for someplace to throw up, know what I mean?
“So this is what happened. The car comes in, J.D. goes to the front, Todd Meredith was with him changing tires, his buddy. They go to the back, J.D. hits about three [of five] lug nuts and they drop the car and it’s gone. J.D. stood up and Todd turned to him and said, ‘Did you get all those?’ and J.D. said, ‘I got about three of them.’ And he goes, ‘Can we make it on that?’ He looked up at Jimmy Makar, whose nickname is Mad Dog, that’s our crew chief, and he goes, ‘We’re getting ready to find out.'”
Having 60 percent of the lug nuts attached on that wheel worked out just fine as Jarrett beat Dale Earnhardt in one of the more memorable Daytona 500 finishes.
J.D. was the guy who gave Hamlin a chance with the team, too. As Joe tells it, J.D. went to Virginia to buy some late model car parts from Hamlin and the two struck up a relationship. J.D. was so enamored with Hamlin’s talent that he told Joe the team needed to sign Hamlin to a contract after he tested with the team.
Just over a year after driving in his first Truck Series race for the team in 2004, Hamlin was given a tryout in the team’s No. 11 car in 2005. JGR added a third car with sponsorship from FedEx that season and it wasn’t going well. Hamlin got his shot in the car for the final seven races of the season and scored three top 10s. It was enough for him to keep the ride for 2006.
Hamlin started that season with a win in the season-opening Clash exhibition race ahead of teammate Tony Stewart. His first points win came at Pocono later that season and won at the track in the series’ return later that summer. He finished third in the points standings.
Hamlin’s been in the No. 11 car ever since.
Sunday’s win was his 32nd in the Cup Series and his second at Daytona. His first came in 2016 when he beat now-teammate Martin Truex Jr. to the line by inches in the closest finish in Daytona 500 history.
Hamlin has the car from that Daytona win in a case near the living room of his opulent house. He’d like to have the 2019 car, too. But he also understands why Joe would want to keep it after it spends the rest of the year in the Daytona International Speedway museum.
“I think this is probably a special car for his family as well,” Hamlin said. “If I don’t have it I would like to see him keep it and do something with it.”
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Nick Bromberg is a writer for Yahoo Sports.
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