By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
Co-founder of Joe Gibbs Racing and former NASCAR driver Jason Dean “J.D.” Gibbs, 49, passed away Friday evening from complications after a long battle with a degenerative neurological disease.
The oldest son of Joe Gibbs became an instrumental force of propelling JGR as one of NASCAR’s elite team, kickstarting the career of Denny Hamlin and bringing Kyle Busch to the team.
Before making his mark in the sport, J.D. played both defensive back and quarterback at William & Mary from 1987-90, looking to follow his dad’s footsteps in coaching football. After his collegiate days were over, he entered the world motorsports with his dad, and on Aug. 13, 1991, they co-founded Joe Gibbs Racing with future NASCAR Hall of Famer Dale Jarrett as their driver and current Senior Vice President of Racing Operations Jimmy Makar calling the shots.
J.D. was Jarrett’s tire changer when JGR scored their first Cup Series victory in the memorable 1993 Daytona 500, where Jarrett held off Dale Earnhardt to score his second of 32 wins.
His next big move was taking a crack at racing himself, running in both the Xfinity and Truck Series from 1997-2002. In a combined 13 starts, J.D. finished no better than 20th at South Boston Speedway in NXS on July 25, 1998. Despite a career in racing didn’t pan out, J.D. already had a full plate in that time period, becoming the team president in 1998 and holding the position until 2015.
In his early tenure as president, JGR expanded to two cars with rookie Tony Stewart in 1999. From there, JGR was climbing on top of the NASCAR ladder, winning two championships with Labonte (2000) and Stewart (2002).
Perhaps J.D.’s biggest role was taking over his father’s operations in 2004 when he started his second stint as an NFL head coach for the Washington Redskins. The following season, J.D. expanded its team to three cars with the addition of the No. 11 car, J.D.’s college football number, with Jason Leffler behind the wheel.
However, growing pains were evident and Leffler was let go mid-season. Not only was his own car struggling, Labonte struggled all season and it turned out to be his final year at JGR after 11 seasons.
During difficult times, one guy was flourishing and that was Stewart, who had his greatest season and arguably, the best summer stretch in NASCAR history with J.D. running day-to-day operations in 2005. Stewart scored five wins and had career-highs in top-fives (17) and top-10s (25), good enough to bring home his second Cup Series title. It was JGR’s third title in six years and J.D.’s first and only Cup title as a sole owner.
That same season, J.D. signed Hamlin to run the final seven races in the No. 11 team, and he became a full-time driver in 2006. Instant success came for Hamlin in those seven races, winning a pole at Phoenix and scoring three top-10 finishes. Hamlin’s rookie season rivaled Stewart’s 1999 campaign, winning the Budweiser Shootout, sweeping the races at Pocono and finishing a rookie-high third-place in points.
In January 2008, Joe resigned as head coach for the Redskins and came back to NASCAR, rejoining the family-owned team. With both working together once again, they brought in Busch and also left General Motors to run Toyota powered engines, which they’ve been racing with to this day.
Busch blossomed to become a polarizing and mega star in the sport, scoring 47 Cup victories and bringing JGR its fourth title in 2015.
J.D. continued being difference maker in the sport as the JGR Diversity Program, which he, Joe and NFL Hall of Famer Reggie White formed in 2003, gave drivers such as Aric Almirola, Darrell “Bubba” Wallace, Jr. and Daniel Suarez their big break in NASCAR with all three currently competing in Cup.
However, J.D.’s health became a concern in late 2014 and on May 2015, he began treatment after exhibiting symptoms that impacted areas in his brain, which doctors determined that an undetermined head injury early in life may have led to the diagnosis.
A year later, J.D. was named as co-chairman at JGR and after 17 years, he handed the presidential role to Dave Alpern and his appearances at the track decreased as he was battling the disease. Joe and his other son, Coy Gibbs, have run the multi-car operation over the past three seasons.
On J.D.’s 47th birthday in 2016, Hamlin eked out future teammate Martin Truex, Jr. by 0.010 seconds in the closest Daytona 500 finish in history. Known for crediting J.D. as the guy that gave him his big break in NASCAR, Hamlin dedicated the victory to him.
“It’s the pinnacle of my career, for sure. I haven’t got a championship yet. This is obviously the biggest win for myself,” said Hamlin. “It’s just the circumstances, J.D. Gibbs, who found me about 12, 13 years ago, it’s his birthday today, he’s been so pivotal to myself and my team and supporting me for the past 11 years.”
Sharing the same initials, Hamlin has displayed “J.D. Hamlin,” on the side of his car since 2017 and last Labor Day Weekend, Hamlin continued honoring him by racing a throwback scheme from 1998 in the Xfinity Series, bringing it home in fourth.
Hamlin made tribute to his fallen owner on Twitter:
His car. His number. His signature above my door. I will always be grateful for what His family did for mine and the opportunity he gave me 14 years ago. Now more than ever #doitforJD
— Denny Hamlin (@dennyhamlin) January 12, 2019
J.D. would’ve turned 50 on Feb. 21 and is survived by his wife Melissa and his four boys – Jackson, Miller, Jason, and Taylor.