Long: Denny Hamlin’s All-Star win provides moments $1 million can’t top

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CONCORD, N.C. – His white polo shirt made it easy to follow J.D. Gibbs’ path as he deftly wound his way by purple-and-black clad crew members on the crowded stage.

Denny Hamlin, enjoying the spoils of his Sprint All-Star Race victory, never saw Joe Gibbs’ son approach. J.D. Gibbs grabbed Hamlin from behind and bear hugged him.

Together again.

The cameras, crowd and colleagues faded around them, as the longest-tenured driver in Joe Gibbs Racing’s four-team stable and the man who pushed the organization to take a chance on a Late Model racer embraced.

They are more than boss and employee. More than friends. The 34-year-old Hamlin calls Gibbs his second dad. When Hamlin arrived at Joe Gibbs Racing in 2004, the company’s namesake was in his second stint coaching the Washington Redskins. It was J.D. Gibbs, team president, who guided Hamlin.

“He was the one that looked after me, called me when I did something wrong, praised me when I did something right,’’ Hamlin said.

That it was Hamlin who delivered JGR’s first All-Star win after countless disappointments and close calls proved fitting. That Gibbs – undergoing treatment for symptoms impacting brain function – was at the track made the moment more special.

This was only third race the 46-year-old Gibbs has attended since the team revealed his health condition March 25, stating that his symptoms include speech and processing issues.

Gibbs was at Talladega Superspeedway two weeks ago and Kansas Speedway last week. Saturday, his wife and children joined him at Charlotte Motor Speedway, sharing the win together.

“Just brings tears to your eyes,’’ Gibbs told NASCAR Talk.

For years, the emotion has been anything but pleasant for Joe Gibbs Racing at this event.

Four times JGR cars finished second. Six other times, JGR cars placed third. One year the organization was five laps from winning before it lost the lead. Another year the team had the dominant cars only to see two of them fall out early because of engine failures.

“So many times we left here just mad and frustrated,’’ said Todd Meredith, who has been with the team since 1992, is a former pit crew member and serves as JGR’s chief operations officer.

Saturday’s All-Star Race was the final major Sprint Cup race Joe Gibbs Racing had yet to win in 24 seasons. The team has three Cup championships, three Brickyard 400 wins, three Southern 500 triumphs, a Daytona 500 victory and a Coca-Cola 600 win.

As Meredith talked about Saturday’s race, J.D. Gibbs came up behind him and howled in excitement.

The moment would not have been possible had Gibbs not gone to a test at Hickory (N.C.) Motor Speedway looking at drivers to join the organization only to see that the best candidate was the kid shaking down the cars.

When Hamlin rewarded Gibbs’ faith by finishing eighth at Darlington Raceway in his debut of what is now the Xfinity Series, it made it easy to give Hamlin a ride at that level in 2005 and a chance to join the Cup team later that year. In a head-to-head tryout with JJ Yeley for the No. 11 ride late in the 2005 season, Hamlin scored three top-10 finishes in seven starts and had a pole. He moved into the No. 11 car’s seat in 2006 and has been there since.

While Hamlin has scored 25 career points wins, he called Saturday’s victory the biggest of his career.

Yet, it didn’t seem as if he and JGR would be celebrating.

Although Hamlin took the lead off pit road to begin the final 10-lap segment, Kurt Busch restarted beside him. Busch had been fast all night and led 24 laps, yet Hamlin left Busch in his wake on the restart. Busch never made up the lost ground and finished third, ending the night by apologizing on the radio to the team for the restart and then unleashing a string of expletives.

Hamlin’s troubles weren’t over, though. Kevin Harvick, who has three wins and the points lead this season, chased Hamlin and appeared poised to pass.

This time, Harvick didn’t. Nothing bad happened to Hamlin and a JGR car – after trying for nearly a quarter century – had won the All-Star race.

The feeling was so new that some team members ran to Victory Lane, not realizing that the winner’s celebration takes place on a stage at the start/finish line to be closer to the fans. Everybody eventually made it.

“You win, it’s like ‘Oh my gosh … we won!’ ” Gibbs said.

They hugged, smiled and shouted for pictures. They basked in the confetti, fireworks and feeling of accomplishment. They celebrated a $1 million paycheck.

No matter what the money buys Hamlin and the team, it cannot provide the true measure of this win.

For the man who believed in Hamlin and now fights a health issue, J.D. Gibbs got the chance to stand with his family next to the trophy and celebrate.

“It was awesome,” Gibbs said.

Joe Gibbs Racing built itself around family. And it ended Saturday night celebrating as family.