Joe Gibbs Honors His Late Son
by Tom Jensen June 21, 2021
After Denny Hamlin won the 2019 Daytona 500, Joe Gibbs picked the race-winning car to display as a tribute to the legacy of J.D. Gibbs.
When an individual is inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame, they select one of their cars and 20 or so artifacts to display for a year in the Hall of Honor.
In most cases, a driver, owner or crew chief who is voted into the Hall selects a championship car--if they won a title in their career. In the case of Joe Gibbs, he has five premier series owner titles to his credit, including three with a pair of fellow class of 2020 inductees: Bobby Labonte in 2000 and Tony Stewart in 2002 and ’05. Gibbs also was the championship car owner for Kyle Busch in 2015 and ’19.
Despite the impressive title total, Gibbs did not choose a championship car for his display, which will remain in the Hall of Honor until the end of 2021.
Instead, Gibbs chose the Toyota Camry that Denny Hamlin drove to victory in the 2019 Daytona 500. Gibbs chose that car for a very specific reason: His elder son, the late J.D. Gibbs, discovered Hamlin in the early 2000s. Dispatched by his father to go to a Virginia short track to buy a used late-model race car, J.D. was so impressed by how Hamlin ran demonstration laps that he eventually convinced his father to sign the young driver.
Hamlin has been a stalwart of Joe Gibbs Racing ever since, having never driven for any other NASCAR team since he debuted with JGR in 2005. Not coincidentally, Hamlin’s No. 11 was also J.D.’s favorite number, the number the younger Gibbs wore as a high school and college football player.
No question, Hamlin was given a huge career break by J.D. Gibbs, who worked for years as the president of his father’s race team. A friendly and calming figure in the garage, J.D., like his father, had a passion for racing and a deep devotion to their religion. Unfortunately, J.D.’s life was cut short by a degenerative neurological disease in early 2019, leaving behind his wife Melissa and four sons.
“About five years ago, we started noticing some changes in J.D. The diagnosis was that he had a degenerative brain disease,” said Joe Gibbs after the 2019 Daytona 500. “And it started a long process for us. Slowly, little by little, J.D. just got everything taken away from him. It was just heartbreaking for all of us. … We all fought. J.D. handled that the way he handled everything in life. Never a complaint. And he just fought as hard as he could. That process for us was awful. And J.D. went to be with the Lord on January 11 of this year (2019). We all know at that point our next big event was the Daytona 500.”
Less than a month after J.D.’s untimely passing, Joe Gibbs and the entire JGR squad had to head to Daytona for Speedweeks. Hamlin, an accomplished restrictor-plate racer, finished fourth in his Gander Duel 150 Daytona 500 qualifying race, which meant he’d line up 10th to start the 500. On the roof of his car, Hamlin’s No. 11 Toyota carried the name J.D. Gibbs.
Hamlin didn’t take his first lead until Lap 170, but once he got in clean air his Toyota was the clear class of the field. Hamlin led 30 of the final 38 laps, taking the checkered flag ahead of teammates Kyle Busch and Erik Jones, as JGR posted the first 1-2-3 Daytona 500 finish for teammates since 1997.
Afterwards, the scene was understandably beyond emotional. Hamlin dedicated the race to his late mentor’s memory as he and his team owner shared tears of joy for J.D.’s memory.
“It's the most emotional and the biggest win I've ever had in my life in anything,” said Gibbs, who in addition to his NASCAR titles has three Super Bowl championships from his days as a coach of the Washington Football Team. “J.D. built our race team, was the guy that ran day‑to‑day operations for 27 years. He invested his occupational life in our race team.
It's the most emotional and the biggest win I've ever had in my life in anything
— Joe Gibbs
The significance of the victory was not lost on either the team owner or his driver.
“I think everybody that saw that race, honestly said, ‘This couldn’t have happened by accident.’ I don’t believe it happened by accident,” Gibbs said after Hamlin’s victory. “I think God’s hand was on that race. Most people, myself included, believe that J.D. had the best seat in the house. It was the greatest victory I’ve been a part of. We hope that it honored the Lord with everything that took place there.”
“(Coach Gibbs) is an NFL Hall of Famer, Super Bowl champion, and saying that this is the biggest win of his career is just special, and it's just special for me to be able to deliver that to him in a special way,” said Hamlin, who went on to win his third Daytona 500 in 2020. “It put in perspective to me that this was much bigger than sports.”
Plan your visit to the NASCAR Hall of Fame and purchase tickets by visiting nascarhall.com/tickets.