HOMESTEAD, Fla. — It was Kyle Busch‘s championship evening at Homestead-Miami Speedway Sunday, but it also had a distinctive feel of being a J.D. Gibbs kind of achievement.
Team owner Joe Gibbs‘ oldest son J.D. was president of the Joe Gibbs Racing team and an omnipresent positive vibe in the NASCAR garage for more than a decade. Typically smiling and joking, but also ultra-competitive, he helped guide the team to four previous Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championships and won hearts because of his positive spirit.
J.D. Gibbs passed away on Jan. 11 at 49 after a valiant and lengthy fight against a degenerative neurological disease. His passing and its effect on the 2019 season have been simultaneously heartbreaking and heart-strengthening for the team.
The last race J.D. attended was the 2015 Homestead-Miami Speedway season finale, which was coincidentally — or not, depending how you chose to believe — the last time Kyle Busch won at Homestead and when he captured his first season championship.
Joe Gibbs was smiling widely in the celebration Sunday night after Busch‘s championship victory. But there was also an unmistakable special gleam in his eye. This one was for J.D.
“This has been an emotional year for us and for me, starting with the Daytona 500,” Gibbs said of his driver Denny Hamlin‘s season-opening Daytona International Speedway victory only a few weeks after J.D.‘s passing.
“And I think anyone that saw that would say there‘s no way that could happen by accident. I feel like God was kind of overseeing that and I think J.D. was there. And it kind of continued the entire year for me.”
Hamlin‘s emotional win at Daytona in the weeks after J.D. Gibbs‘ passing was memorable and, Joe Gibbs believes, highly motivational to the entire team. Counting Busch‘s win at Homestead, the four-car JGR organization set a NASCAR modern era (since 1972) record with 19 wins. All four of his drivers — Busch, Hamlin, Sunday‘s championship runner-up Martin Truex Jr. and young driver Erik Jones — won races this season and qualified for the playoffs.
“It‘s been emotional to win the number of races we‘ve won,‘‘ Gibbs said. “It‘s just something that doesn‘t normally happen. I think he has been a part of it and everyone that worked at Joe Gibbs racing when J.D. left us, each and everyone of them felt that.
“I think they have devoted this year to him and I know all of us did family-wise.”
Busch acknowledged after the race Sunday night he was thinking of J.D. and cognizant of the totality of J.D.‘s impact on the organization. Busch said he couldn‘t remember exactly if it was J.D. or Coach Gibbs who initially reached out about bringing him onto the team. But he spoke fondly about what J.D. has meant to him and his career.
“I know it‘s been a difficult time on (J.D.‘s wife) Melissa and Joe (Gibbs),” Busch said in Victory Lane. “To be able to reward them with a championship, I know how much it means to them, but it‘s the best I can do.”
“I know J.D. was looking down on us all year long.”
Busch added, “He‘s an honorable man and honorable father and one that reflects the Lord and lived that way and showed people how to do that.
“A lot could be learned from those type of individuals.”
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That was evident this week in JGR‘s precedent-setting three entries in the championship race. It‘s the kind of lofty ambition J.D. would have absolutely appreciated — and been so very proud.
Busch‘s teammate, Hamlin, carried a special message on the back of his Toyota this weekend and a memorial to his friend all season long. J.D. had been No. 11 when he played high school football, and Hamlin‘s Toyota is No. 11. It was J.D. who hired a young Hamlin and gave him his first opportunity in NASCAR‘s big leagues.
Although Hamlin missed out on winning his first championship this weekend, he remained positive about the opportunity he had and absolutely motivated to do even better next year.
He was smiling and positive even as he discussed his championship near-miss.
Listening to Hamlin speak, seeing his attitude all week there was an unmistakable J.D. influence there. From Busch‘s win to Hamlin‘s good try — from Truex‘s runner-up run to the team‘s 23-year-old Jones career-best, third-place finish — there was effort, results and positive momentum.
And J.D. would have been so proud.
“I just want to say thanks to everyone,” Gibbs said. “People asked me if it was emotional all year, I felt like I could feel J.D. all year and it‘s kind of hard to put into words.
“But it‘s been special and different and was great to finish it up the way we did tonight.”