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Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin dedicates emotional win to J.D. Gibbs

Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin did it for J.D.

After all, J.D. Gibbs had done so much for Hamlin leading up to Sunday evening’s dramatic win. This included giving a brash, promising young driver a shot, along with Gibbs’ car number, two decades ago.

“J.D.'s favorite number was 11 when he raced,” said Joe Gibbs, J.D.’s father. “That's what he had.”

J.D. Gibbs, who died tragically last month at age 49, was not nearly the driver Hamlin would become. But few loved racing cars and hanging around the garage more than Gibbs.

Gibbs eventually would joined forces with his famous father, tapping into the competitive juices, organizational acumen and strategic genius Joe Gibbs used to coach the Washington Redskins to three Super Bowl titles.

The elder Gibbs, now 78, found a second act on the asphalt as successful as his Hall of Fame career on the sidelines. J.D. found his calling after playing college football at William & Mary and a short career as a driver.

Gibbs was known for his incredible focus as a football coach, often at the expense of all else, including his family and eventually his health. A year prior to his sudden first retirement in 1993, North Carolina native Gibbs joined the world of NASCAR.

Father and son shared the success of Joe Gibbs Racing as adults.

“J.D. built our race team, was the guy that ran day-to-day operations for 27 years,” Gibbs said. “He invested his occupational life in our race team.”

J.D. Gibbs invested as much into Hamlin as any driver.

With Gibbs as president, the company captured four Cup championships, with Bobby Labonte in 2000, Tony Stewart in 2002 and 2005 and Kyle Busch in 2015.

Hamlin might be the company’s biggest success story because Gibbs Racing was with him from Day 1.

“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 he said, ‘We need to sign this guy,’” Joe Gibbs recalled. “And so that started the relationship and everything.”

Hamlin, a Tampa native who grew up near Richmond, Va., said he spent his first paycheck on rims for car tires and a plasma TV.

“I was in high … That was a hit in my town,” Hamlin exclaimed Sunday night.

Gibbs countered, “And three years later, he bought a house next to me that was twice as big as my house. So it tells you I get in the wrong end of everything.”

Hamlin ultimately would display his gratitude to the Gibbs family by putting J.D’s signature above his car door and delivering the race team numerous trips to Victory Lane.

Hamlin’s second Daytona 500 championship was his 32th win — most among active drivers without a season championship. Sunday’s win may have been the most unexpected, given the race’s many twists and turns and Hamlin’s recent struggles.

Three wrecks and two red-flag stoppages totaling nearly 40 minutes during the final 10 laps of regulation extended the 200-lap race seven additional laps before Hamlin outlasted Gibbs teammates Busch and Erik Jones.

The victory was especially sweet following Hamlin’s first winless season since he became a full-time Cup series driver in 2006.

Coming a little more than a month after J.D. Gibbs’ death due to a rare neurological disorder, the win had a storybook feel.

“I don't believe that just happened,” Joe Gibbs said. “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. I called home to Pat [his wife since 1966], 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.”

Quite a statement from a man with three Super Bowl rings, four Cup titles and now three Daytona 500 championships.

But Gibbs had just two sons and one of them is gone.

Hamlin, now 38, was humbled to share such a significant and memorable moment with the patriarch of a family that gave him his start.

“It's just special for me to be able to deliver that to him in a special way,” Hamlin said. “I know he would have been happy with any one of his cars going out there and getting a victory, but obviously one with his son's name on the door and number is probably a little more special.”

egthompson@orlandosentinel.com

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