Ryan: Joe Gibbs sternly keeps his team on course during an emotional week

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MARTINSVILLE, Va. – Sunday might have ranked among Joe Gibbs’ most emotional wins in NASCAR, but it hardly seemed evident watching the venerable team owner work a jubilant scene at Martinsville Speedway.

He marched through the pits, hardly wasting motion while weaving between cars to thank his drivers and a few dozen team members.

He beelined to victory lane and began directing traffic on stage, handing an iPhone 6 back and forth between winner Denny Hamlin and a waiting team member with instructions on whom to call next.

He popped into photos with a raised index finger and a smile while pausing to line up sponsor VIPs for more shots.

It was a celebration conducted with the cool efficiency and precision of a drill sergeant, and the seeds for it fittingly were planted with a stern call to arms several days earlier.

“We had the longest competition meeting I’ve ever been a part of this past weekend,” Hamlin said after his victory in Sunday’s STP 500 ended a winless drought of more than a year for Toyota and JGR in the unrestricted engine races that make up the bulk of the Sprint Cup schedule. “Joe raised his voice, which doesn’t happen very often, told us to get off our tails and go to work, and we all did it, and it was a great result.

“Sometimes you need a leader like that to kind of put things in perspective.”

The perspective might have been overwhelming at times this week inside the walls of JGR’s Huntersville, N.C., headquarters, where the news was released last Wednesday that president J.D. Gibbs was suffering the past six months from concussion-type symptoms impacting brain function.

The team said little is known so far about the condition. In his first public comments about his son Sunday morning, Joe Gibbs said doctors “just really don’t know” how to diagnose it yet.

The only certainty is that J.D. Gibbs’ presence at the track significantly will be downsized while he is treated. The former William and Mary football player wasn’t present at Martinsville, but he wasn’t out of mind for his father.

“I was honestly thinking that down the stretch with Denny,” Joe said. “I thought, ‘Man, that would be awesome to have Denny be able to win this race.’ ”

Hamlin, who called J.D. from victory lane, also had an emotional connection stemming from the unbelievable break in January 2004 that put him in the No. 11 Toyota.

“J.D. happened to just show up at a Hickory (N.C.) test where we were running some late models, and he made a phone call to his dad and thought maybe he had something there that was special,” Hamlin said. “They signed me up, and J.D. was the key to making that happen.”

In barely over two years, Hamlin went from being an unknown Virginia short-track star to the 2006 rookie of the year in NASCAR’s premier series.

In a breathless succession from the Camping World Truck Series to Xfinity to Sprint Cup, Hamlin quickly adapted and became a contender in every vehicle he raced at JGR.

All because the team bet large on a hunch by its president.

“I think it’s one of the great stories in sports,” Joe Gibbs said. “For me, it was emotional and thinking about J.D. and all that he means to our team, so it was a big week for us, but a great finish to a story there.”

It’s natural to ask where JGR’s story goes from here without J.D. Gibbs, who inherited much of the team’s day-to-day operations during his father’s second stint of coaching the Washington Redskins from 2004-08.

Joe Gibbs tried to quell those concerns Sunday morning. He noted the team’s depth and longevity in senior management, pointed out that he and J.D. handle the same responsibilities and emphasized that J.D. still would play a major role in business strategy.

But it’s long seemed the line of succession at JGR would lead to J.D., whose younger brother, Coy, runs JGR’s motocross team.

“Coy also shares a lot with all of our big decisions with any of our racing, and he’ll have a huge impact on anything we do in the future,” Joe Gibbs said. “He’s a very big part of our family and our race team and everything going forward.”

In the present, though, there will be more falling on Joe Gibbs’ 70-year-old shoulders – particularly at the track.

Whether fastidiously making the rounds after Hamlin’s victory, or sternly righting the ship by reading his team the riot act several days before it, he seemed more than up to the task this past week.

“Bossman over here expects a lot from us,” Hamlin said, gesturing at Gibbs, “and we expect to be in victory lane and be up front.”

Through its leader’s force of will, there’s no reason to believe JGR won’t stay there.