It seems like a million years ago when sports fans in the United States identified with Joe Gibbs as the head coach of the NFL’s Washington Redskins. He won three Super Bowls in 12 seasons with the Redskins, so it’s impossible to overemphasize his significance to the league and to the history of the landmark franchise.
To this new generation, however, Gibbs is a NASCAR legend, the boss of Joe Gibbs Racing, one of the sport’s iconic teams since it was first put on the lift in 1992. And on Sunday, Gibbs won himself the Super Bowl of another sport.
Behind the wheel was veteran Denny Hamlin, who came to the Daytona 500 without a victory in the 2018 season. But he began the new season in fantastic style, avoiding a hazardous, wreck-filled track in his No. 11 Toyota to win the race for a second time.
As emotional as the win was for Hamlin, it resonated even more for Gibbs, who has been dealing with the emotional loss of his eldest son, J.D., to a degenerative brain disease last month at age 49.
It was J.D. Gibbs who co-founded JGR and helped build it from the floor. He started off changing tires, even made over a dozen starts for the team from 1998-2002. But while his father was still flirting with the NFL, he ran the operation.
He was with it until 2015 when as president he had to step away when the severity of his condition began to first impair him cognitively. But before he stepped away, it was clear to the Hamlin how much he had to do with the framing of his career, beginning from the day at the Hickory Motor Speedway in North Carolina where Gibbs essentially discovered him.
And that he was sitting in a Camry, with J.D.’s favorite No. 11 on its side on Sunday – was also due to Gibbs’ foresight. He convinced his father in 2008 to move away from Chevrolet.
“This year being a whole new ball of wax, it’s a complete reset,” Hamlin said after his 32nd career Cup Series win. “There was no doubt, whether it was last year’s package or this year’s package, we’re gonna be successful and we’re going to win races.”
After he emerged from the victory circle on Sunday, Hamlin and the JGR team dedicated the victory to J.R. on Twitter.
“The whole family, they did so much for me over the course of my career, and this one is for J.D,” Hamlin said. “We are desperately going to miss him the rest of our lives. His legacy still lives on through Joe Gibbs Racing and proud to do this for them.
“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 [Gibbs] and all the kids here, it’s just crazy.”
And it was a race, especially a finish, Gibbs would have been thrilled by. Hamlin took the lead from Kyle Busch on the overtime restart on lap 205 to become the 12th driver to win multiple Daytona races. He had won his first in 2016 by .01 seconds over Martin Truex, Jr.
Not only did Hamlin win, but JGR cars finished 1-2-3 with Busch and Erik Jones right behind. Only twice in Daytona 500 history has one team grabbed the top three finishes
“It’s the most emotional and the biggest win I’ve ever had in my life — in anything,” said Joe Gibbs. “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.”
As the race was progressing, it was clear everyone at the track was thinking about J.D.Gibbs. On the 11th lap, crew members from all the teams stood in their pit boxes in his honor.
“I know (Joe Gibbs) would have been happy with any one of his cars going out there and getting a victory,” Hamlin said. “But obviously one with his son’s name on the door and number, it’s probably a little more special.”
Joey Logano, who finished fourth after winning the 2018 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship, drove for JGR from 2009-12.
“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 [those] guys a little extra boost there at the end.”
The race was literally a wreck, stopped twice for a total of 40 minutes to clear debris and tidy things up. There was a 21-car crash, 12 cautions and five wrecks in the final 20 laps of regulation. One of NASCAR’s track-drying trucks even broke down.
“I think I was so dumbfounded about everything that happened the first time with the photo finish and everything,” Hamlin said. “This one lets me soak it in a little bit more. I’m going to have a terrible hangover tomorrow, but I’m going to enjoy it the rest of my life.”