DAYTONA BEACH — Eleven laps into Sunday’s Daytona 500, Joe Gibbs Racing honored its late co-founder by unfurling a banner in memory of J.D. Gibbs.
Four-plus hours and eight crashes later, JGR came up with an even better tribute for the former team president who died last month at age 49.
Denny Hamlin — the Tampa-born driver J.D. discovered —withstood a crash-filled final few laps Sunday to win his second Daytona 500. He led a 1-2-3 finish for his team and took his No. 11 Toyota back to Victory Circle with J.D.’s name atop the car.
“The whole family, they’ve done so much for me over the course of my career,” Hamlin said. “This one’s for J.D.”
It was J.D., after all, who found Hamlin almost 20 years ago. Hamlin was selling late-model parts and struck up a relationship with J.D., which turned into a test and, eventually, a ride in NASCAR’s Cup Series.
Without that, there would have been no celebration here in 2016, when Hamlin’s No. 11 Toyota edged Martin Truex Jr. in the closest finish in race history. And there would have been no celebration like the one JGR savored Sunday night at the famed 2 1/2 -mile tri-oval after Hamlin beat teammates Kyle Busch and Erik Jones for the first three-car sweep in the Great American Race since Hendrick Motorsports in 1997.
“What happened here, it’s unreal…” said team owner Joe Gibbs, J.D.’s father. “I’m just thrilled. I think J.D. had the best view of everything.”
The view everyone else got was of an eventful race that woke up a snooze-filled Speedweeks. The single-file parades that had plagued Daytona International Speedway gave way to side-by-side racing and, of course, wrecks.
The inevitable big one came with 10 laps to go and started when Paul Menard tapped Matt DiBenedetto, who had been the day’s biggest surprise by leading a race-high 49 laps.
“I’ll take the blame for that one, I guess,” Menard said.
By the time the crash ended, 21 cars — more than half the field — were collected, including the No. 10 Ford of Tampa’s Aric Almirola.
Fortunately for JGR, most of its cars were at the front, including Busch’s No. 18 Toyota.
Busch, the 2015 Cup champion, was leading at the first red flag and finally looked poised to complete the only major accomplishment that has eluded him.
It didn’t happen.
Busch chose the inside line after the penultimate caution — which is exactly what Hamlin preferred. Hamlin sped around his teammate to take the lead before the last wreck.
On the final restart, Busch let Hamlin jump inside with the hope of getting a push from behind to retake the lead. But with only 14 cars on the lead lap at the end, Busch never got the aerodynamic help he needed to get ahead of the 38-year-old Hamlin.
“Certainly bittersweet,” Busch said.
Just like the entire night for JGR.
J.D. Gibbs spent two-plus decades building the team from a startup into one of the best in the series. He helped Hamlin grow from a driver with nothing to an established Cup veteran with 32 career victories.
But he wasn’t around to see JGR dominate the end and Hamlin snap a 47-race winless streak.
Still, the team felt his memory was impossible to ignore. The driver he discovered won the biggest race of the year, with a car number (11) that was always his favorite, to accomplish something that hasn’t been done here in more than two decades. Even the fourth-place driver, Joey Logano, used to drive for him.
His father, a three-time Super Bowl champion coach, had never seen anything like it.
“It’s the most emotional and the biggest win I’ve ever had in my life,” Joe Gibbs said, “in anything.”
Contact Matt Baker at email@example.com. Follow @MBakerTBTimes.