There was nothing easy about Denny Hamlin’s first victory of the season.
There is nothing easy about the path ahead for Joe Gibbs Racing.
Hamlin’s victory Sunday in the STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway should provide some measure of solace that the struggles of the past season were worth the effort and a reminder to team president J.D. Gibbs of the resiliency of the organization he helped build.
In a statement released last week, JGR announced Gibbs was receiving treatment for issues related to “brain function.”
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His presence was missing Sunday at Martinsville Speedway but not his spirit.
It was Gibbs who first noticed Hamlin, then an aspiring Virginia short-track ace, and convinced his father and team owner, Joe Gibbs, they needed to hire him for their NASCAR operation.
On Sunday, Hamlin reminded them why as he cleverly rebuffed Brad Keselowski’s efforts to get around him in the final laps to earn his and JGR’s first Sprint Cup Series victory in almost a year.
“It was about 12, 13 years ago really when J.D. happened to just show up at a 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 Sunday after the race.
“They signed me up, and J.D. was the key to making that happen. I got propelled into the Cup series. It was a lot for me, but they believed in me, and they gave me opportunities to succeed.”
Joe Gibbs, who made an appearance early Sunday in the media center to thank fans and those in NASCAR for their support during his son’s medical situation, said he began to take notice of the significance of Hamlin’s performance as the laps wound down.
“It was emotional, 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,” he said.
Last season was a struggle for the JGR organization.
Although Hamlin and teammates Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch made the Chase, the organization totaled two Cup wins for the season, and Hamlin was the only one who remained in contention for the championship in the season finale at Homestead, Fla.
JGR added a fourth Cup team this season with driver Carl Edwards, but its 2015 season got off to a rough start when Busch was injured in a crash the day before the season-opening Daytona 500. He suffered a compound fracture in his right leg and a fracture in his left foot in the Daytona Xfinity race and hasn’t raced since.
The news of Gibbs’ illness was yet another jolt to the organization.
Sunday’s race at Martinsville offered some hope as Hamlin has been one of the most successful drivers in the series at the track with four previous victories.
He and his No. 11 Toyota team struggled in qualifying Friday but took the lead for the first time on Lap 148 of 500.
Twice during the race, Hamlin experienced problems on pit road, including a penalty for an uncontrolled tire. Each time, Hamlin drove up through the field and into contention for the win.
“We had a lot of things going against us, but on the other hand, I thought Denny showed great leadership characteristics,” said Hamlin’s crew chief, Dave Rogers. “I mean, it’s got to be extremely frustrating to drive the race car and have that going on.
“He didn’t yell, he didn’t scream, he wasn’t derogatory, he just said, ‘Hey, guys, we’ve got to pick it up.’ I thought he was a leader.”
Hamlin powered past Kenseth to take the lead for the last time on Lap 473. He spent the final five laps holding off a spirited challenge from Keselowski.
“I thank my lucky stars every day that I was able to get in the car,” Hamlin said, “because so many young guys come into this sport and don’t get an opportunity with a good team,” Hamlin said.
“Things worked out for me in my future, and it’s amazing looking back on it how everything played out. But these guys gave me my chance, and J.D. was a big key to that.”
Utter: 704-358-5113; Twitter: @jim_utter