‘This one’s for J.D.’: Denny Hamlin’s emotional Daytona 500 win honors late co-founder

Denny Hamlin celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the NASCAR Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway on Sunday.
Denny Hamlin celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the NASCAR Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway on Sunday. AP

When you close your eyes and pray, what comes to mind?

Family, maybe, or good health. Perhaps good fortune — who couldn’t use a bit of luck? — or opportunity, or even just a little peace of mind.

For Joe Gibbs on Sunday at Daytona International Speedway, it was all of that bundled and swirled together in a single overwhelming memory: His late son, J.D. Gibbs, who passed away last month at 49 after a long struggle with a degenerative neurological disease.

Love. Loss. Life goes on.

So when Denny Hamlin, one of Gibbs’ veterans at Joe Gibbs Racing — the driver J.D. personally discovered at Hickory Motor Speedway in the early 2000s, the driver who is dedicating the 2019 season to J.D., who insisted J.D.’s name be on that No. 11 car — pulled across the finish line to win his second Daytona 500, all that emotion came pouring out.

“I’m emotionally shot,” Joe Gibbs choked out seconds after the race ended. “It’s the most emotional, and the biggest, win I’ve ever had in my life in anything.”

That all actually started hours before Hamlin crossed the finish line, with a separate tribute to J.D. on the 11th lap of the 200-plus lap spectacle. Considering J.D. wore No. 11 both as a college football player at William & Mary and as a part-time Truck and Xfinity Series driver, it was the clear time to make some sort of tribute.

So on lap 11, all the JGR pit crew members went and stood near the wall at pit road, holding a banner with J.D.’s name on it. And at the same time, Gibbs stepped off to himself and closed his eyes in memory.

Just a father remembering his son.

“I don’t believe that just happened. I honestly believe it was...” Gibbs said, his voice trailing off before he continued. “I think the Lord looked down on us, and I know J.D. and everybody in my family was emotional.

“It was the most important night of my occupational life.”

As for the actual race itself, it was a perfect display of the talent that so attracted J.D. to Hamlin all those years ago. For a relatively tame first 190 laps, the last 10 featured three massive race-altering wrecks, with practically half the field unable to finish the race.

Hamlin, though, went unscathed.

“We just were fortunate to really be up front at the right time to avoid those,” Hamlin said. “I mean, we were really one row in front of all the mayhem the entire time at the end.”

After surviving all that chaos, the end of the race came down to Hamlin and JGR teammate Kyle Busch. Hamlin had his choice of where to line up, having been in the lead at the time of the third and final wreck, and so the two struck up a deal: Busch would let Hamlin take the outside line (which Hamlin preferred), and then drop down in front of him on the bottom once he had the lead. Even with reigning Cup Series champion Joey Logano close on both their rear bumpers, it was exactly what Hamlin would have dreamed up.

“When he gave me the top, I literally was doing a little cheer in my mind,” Hamlin said. “My playbook said always choose the top, no matter what, no matter who’s behind you.’”

By the time Hamlin dropped down in front of Busch, he had more than enough cushion to seal his second Daytona 500 victory.

Other than the obvious emotional significance of Sunday night, this win did mean so much to so many. Gibbs, who won three Super Bowl championships as Washington’s head coach, now also had his third Daytona 500 ring. For Hamlin, who went winless in 2018 and is the winningest active driver without a championship, it was a welcome reminder that his best days in NASCAR aren’t behind him. Crew chief Chris Gabehart earned his first Cup Series victory in his first race as head man.

But more than any of that, this night was for the one man not here to enjoy it.

So of course, as soon as he stepped out of his smoking race car, that’s all Hamlin could say:

“This one’s for J.D.”

Brendan Marks is a general assignment sports reporter for the Charlotte Observer covering the Carolina Panthers, Charlotte Hornets, NASCAR and more. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and has worked for the Observer since August 2017.
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