HOMESTEAD, Fla. – As team owner Joe Gibbs sat at the championship table in the media center Sunday night, a reflective look crossed his face as he soaked in the many emotions of the moment.
Gibbs was taking it all in after Kyle Busch brought home Joe Gibbs Racing’s fifth Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series title at Homestead-Miami Speedway, winning the Ford EcoBoost 400 to secure the crown.
It was the perfect bookend to a year that began with heartbreak, continued with triumph and culminated in the ultimate success story, thanks to a modern-era record 19 wins by JGR in addition to Busch’s career-defining title.
The Joe Gibbs Racing story this year started Jan. 11, when Gibbs’ son J.D. – the longtime president and “main man” of the organization – passed away after a lengthy battle with a degenerative neurological disease.
As devastating as J.D.’s passing was to the race team at the time, every member used his memory and legacy as inspiration to go out and achieve greatness.
That mission was rewarded in February, as Denny Hamlin – the driver J.D. discovered at Hickory (N.C.) Motor Speedway and brought into the fold – won the season-opening Daytona 500 as part of a 1-2-3 finish for the team.
It continued as Hamlin, Busch, Martin Truex Jr. and Erik Jones piled up victory after victory through the year and spilled over Sunday night as Busch hoisted the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series trophy, the second time in his career that he’s reached the pinnacle of American stock-car racing.
Perhaps it was a fitting twist of fate that Busch was the one to deliver JGR’s fifth championship, as the last race that J.D. attended for the team was the 2015 season finale – when Busch won his first title.
All those little puzzle pieces and glimmers of emotion added up to a room-brightening smile on Joe Gibbs’ face as he reminisced on his late son and celebrated such a crowning moment for his race team.
“It’s been an emotional year for us,” Gibbs told SPEED SPORT. “For me, it started with the Daytona 500. I think anybody that saw that would say that there’s no way that could happen by accident. I felt like God was kind of overseeing that. I think J.D. was there. And then it kind of continued the entire year for me. It’s been emotional to think that you could win the number of races we’ve won this year. It’s just something that normally doesn’t happen.
“I think he was a big part of it for us. I think for everybody that worked at Joe Gibbs Racing, when J.D. left us, I think each and every one of them felt that so much,” Gibbs added. “I think they devoted this year to him – I know Coy and all of us did family‑wise. If you ask me, it was emotional all year. I felt like I could feel J.D. all year, and it’s kind of hard to put in words.
“But it’s been special and different, and it was great to finish it up the way we did tonight.”
Busch was quick to note, both in his television interviews and with the media afterward, J.D.’s impact on his career specifically, as well as his role in bringing the Las Vegas native to JGR in the first place.
He couldn’t remember if it was Joe or J.D. Gibbs that made the final push to bring him onboard, but he was grateful nevertheless.
“I actually … I’ve never asked Joe if it was him or J.D. that really went hardest at trying to get me to sign with JGR, but J.D. certainly had a big impact on my life,” Busch recalled. “In my early years and coming over to Joe Gibbs Racing, J.D. and I knew each other a little bit from Truck Series stuff. Coy and I knew each other better because Coy was there when I was there, but I’ve just always respected the family and have given them everything that I’ve got and have appreciated what they’ve given me in return.
“I know it’s been a difficult time on [J.D.’s wife] Melissa and Joe [Gibbs]. To be able to reward them with a championship, I know how much it means to them, and it’s the best I can do,” he continued. “I know J.D. was looking down on us all year long. He’s an honorable man and honorable father and one that reflected the Lord and lived that way and showed people how to do that.
“A lot can be learned from those type of individuals, and I know I learned a lot from J.D.”
JGR set new marks all season long, including a new Cup Series record of three teams from one organization making the Championship 4, an achievement never-before-seen prior to Sunday night.
Though Hamlin didn’t come away with the title Sunday night, the back of his No. 11 FedEx Toyota carried a thank-you message to his longtime friend, the friend whose football number was the same as Hamlin’s car number, whose initials were the same as Hamlin’s and who first hired Hamlin back in 2006.
As Hamlin spoke about coming up short in the title fight, there was motivation to come back even stronger next year – the kind of motivation and pride in his work that J.D. would have smiled at.
He likely also would have smiled at Truex’s charge to runner-up honors and fourth driver Erik Jones’ third-place finish, which allowed JGR to close the season just like the team started it nine months ago.
It was a year about fight, a year about heart and a year about positivity in the face of tremendous heartache.
It was a year that J.D. would have been proud of.
“This one was for him,” Gibbs said. “It’s a huge deal for us.”