By David Morgan, Associate Editor
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – “It’s the most emotional and the biggest win I’ve ever had in my life, in anything,” Joe Gibbs said after the 61st running of the Daytona 500.
Less than a month after the loss of J.D Gibbs, Joe Gibbs Racing came into the 2019 season with a motto: “Do It for J.D.” And they executed that almost to perfection Sunday, with Denny Hamlin capturing his second victory in the Great American Race, followed by Kyle Busch and Erik Jones securing a podium sweep for the organization.
Hamlin’s No. 11 car was J.D.’s pet project, as J.D gave Hamlin his start with the team back in 2005, being with him every step of the way through his career, helping guide both Hamlin and JGR as a whole toward the group they are today.
After his passing, Hamlin put J.D.’s name above the door of his Camry, where it will stay for the duration of the season, bringing him along for the ride the 2019 season is sure to be.
The emotions of the night ran rampant through the Gibbs bunch as all of them celebrated the accomplishment they had just achieved, while also paying tribute to their fallen friend along the way.
“J.D. built our race team,” Gibbs continued. “He 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. He put him in a test, put him in a Truck, put him in an Xfinity car at Darlington and finally said, ‘We need to sign this guy.’
“I got to tell you what happened right here – J.D.’s name is on that car. That’s his number 11 with Denny. He found Denny. I’m just saying what happened here is emotional for all of us and the family. Denny racing like he did right there is just unbelievable. I’m emotionally shot. I’m just saying, what happened here is really unreal. I’m just thrilled. I think J.D. has the best view of everything.
“It’s really an unbelievable experience. I don’t know how to put it into words. I just thank the Lord for letting us be a part of this.”
A day prior to the race, Joe Gibbs told a story about the team’s first Daytona 500 win, when J.D. served as a pit crew member for Dale Jarrett’s No. 18 team, showing how intertwined J.D was in the success of JGR right from the beginning.
“When we first started the race team, our second year, we put him on the pit crew, and I don’t know how many of you have heard this story, but I’ve got my son now, and he’s a pretty good athlete, and in those days you changed right-side tires, left-side tires. This is the second year we raced. We didn’t win anything the first year,” he said.
“So, we go to the racetrack, and all of a sudden, our car in the 500 with Dale Jarrett, we’re up front. So, man, I’m looking around, I say, oh, my gosh. Then all of a sudden it dawned on me, this is going to come down to the last pit stop. 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 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.”
“The bottom line is he won that race. So that was the story with J.D. and our very first race that he ever changed tires. So it’s a great story for us, and we keep that story. This is a hard race to win.”
Though not currently a JGR driver, 2018 Cup champion and fourth-place finisher Joey Logano got his start at Gibbs and credited J.D. with giving him his start, another in a long line of tributes to Gibbs that have permeated throughout Speedweeks.
“I’m not a Gibbs driver, but for 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 one, two, three, it just says he’s up there watching and maybe gave you guys a little extra boost there at the end.”
While still basking in the victory glow from winning at the World Center of Racing, Gibbs was quick to point out that he thinks the best years are still ahead at JGR, with nothing serving as a better legacy to his son than continuing to excel on track and off.
“I know we’ve gone through tough times here recently,” Gibbs said. “I’m going to tell you, I swear I think our best years are in front of us, and we’ve got so many people working so hard right now in our sport, so I’m fired up about it, and this is the only thing me and my family want to do. We don’t have anything else. So, this has to go.”