DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Three Super Bowl championships and two previous Daytona 500 wins could not compare to Sunday night for Joe Gibbs.
Watching Denny Hamlin — a driver signed by Gibbs’ late son J.D. — win the Daytona 500 five weeks after J.D. Gibbs’ death was unlike anything Joe Gibbs has won as a Hall of Fame NFL coach and NASCAR car owner.
“This is the most emotional and the biggest win I’ve ever had in my life in anything,” Joe Gibbs said after his cars finished first, second and third Sunday night. “J.D. built our race team and was the guy that ran day-to-day operations for 27 years. He invested his occupational life in our race team. As a part of that, he went up to purchase some Late Model stuff from Denny and struck up a relationship with Denny, put him in a test, put him in a Truck, put him in an Xfinity car at Darlington and finally said we had to sign this guy. That started the relationship.”
J.D. Gibbs died Jan. 11 from complications following a long battle with a degenerative neurological disease. He was 49. The family held a public memorial service Jan. 28 that provided a mix of tears and laughter for those who attended the event at a college basketball arena.
Sunday, J.D. Gibbs’ widow and four sons were at Daytona International Speedway as NASCAR honored him on the 11th lap of the race — tying in with the number he used when he raced.
That it is Hamlin’s number is only part of the what makes the No. 11 car special to him. Hamlin also has had J.D. Gibbs’ name over the driver’s side door since 2017.
“The whole family – they did so much for me over the course of my career,” Hamlin said after winning his second Daytona 500 and 32nd career Cup race. “This one is for J.D. We are desperately going to miss him the rest of our lives. His legacy still lives on through Joe Gibbs Racing and (I’m) proud to do this for them.”
Former Joe Gibbs Racing driver Joey Logano also celebrated J.D. Gibbs’ memory after the race.
“For what J.D. has done for my career is the reason why I’m sitting here today,” Logano said after finishing fourth. “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. Congratulations to them.”
Joe Gibbs knows that Hamlin’s win was divine.
“I honestly believe it was ‑‑ I think the Lord looked down on us, and I know J.D. and everybody in my family was emotional,” Joe Gibbs said. “I called home to (wife) Pat, and I called sponsors that were emotional, too.
“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 was the most important night of my occupational life.”