DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Denny Hamlin did it for the late J.D. Gibbs on Sunday night at Daytona Int’l Speedway.
In an intense run to the finish of the 61st Daytona 500, Hamlin shook off a 47-race winless drought with a dominant performance when it mattered most. He passed teammate Kyle Busch on a restart with two laps left, then held Busch off in NASCAR Overtime to notch his second win in The Great American Race.
Hamlin led a one-two-three finish for Joe Gibbs Racing in the first race since J.D. Gibbs’ passing in January, and the emotion of the ending was evident in the moments after Hamlin climbed from the car on the frontstretch.
“This is for the whole (Gibbs) family,” said Hamlin. “They’ve done so much for me over the course of my career. This one’s for JD. We’re desperately going to miss him the rest of our lives, but his legacy still lives on through Joe Gibbs Racing and we so badly wanted to deliver for him tonight.”
Sunday’s victory marked Hamlin’s 32nd career Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series win and first since September of 2017 at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway, but it might have been his most meaningful ever.
Hamlin was first scouted by J.D. Gibbs before signing with Joe Gibbs Racing in the Cup Series and has carried Gibbs’ favorite number – the No. 11 – ever since joining the field at NASCAR’s top level.
The impact and lasting legacy that the late Gibbs had on Hamlin’s career has always been evident, and often pointed out by the Chesterfield, Va., native, but it was no more evident than on Sunday night.
“I really can’t put this into perspective,” Hamlin admitted. “We have his whole family here. He meant a lot to me and it’s hard for me not getting choked up … because I’ve been choked up about 100 times about it. Just to have Melissa (Gibbs, J.D.’s widow) and all the kids here, it’s just crazy. Joe and his whole family and what they’ve done for my career – to bring them back to victory lane again is just amazing.”
The last time Hamlin won the Daytona 500 in 2016, it was his first race working with a new crew chief in Mike Wheeler, and the duo ultimately lifted the Harley J. Earl Trophy together.
Sunday night, Hamlin again returned to victory lane in the Daytona 500 with a new crew chief, this time with Chris Gabehart, who replaced Wheeler atop Hamlin’s pit box.
For Hamlin, who cut his teeth on the short tracks of the Southeast, it was a chance to celebrate a win with a crew chief who understood his own roots and connected with them.
“He’s a short track racer. That’s what I love about him,” said Hamlin of Gabehart. “He’s just got that short track mentality, the same as (Mike) “Wheels” (Wheeler). I’ll tell you what, Wheels’ car ran pretty damn good today too, if you saw that.
“It’s just amazing to be in this position. This is really cool.”
Of note, Sunday night was Joe Gibbs Racing’s 100th Cup Series victory since joining Toyota in 2008.