DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Earlier in the weekend leading up to the Daytona 500, Joe Gibbs faced the media and attempted to put into words what winning The Great American Race would mean in the wake of his son’s recent passing.

After Denny Hamlin’s storybook victory in the 61st running of the famed event, Gibbs returned to the Daytona Int’l Speedway media center and said that Sunday’s result meant “everything.”

“This was just an unbelievable night and an unbelievable crowd,” said Gibbs. “The whole thing was just a special memory for me and one I’ll never forget. It was the most important night of my occupational life.

“This is the most emotional and the biggest win I’ve ever had in anything. It’s so special.”

Gibbs’ son, the late J.D. Gibbs, was the one who scouted out Hamlin and convinced his father to sign the Chesterfield, Va., native. Sunday night after the Daytona 500, Joe Gibbs recalled that process.

“J.D. built our race team and was the guy that ran day‑to‑day operations for 27 years. He invested his occupational life in our race team,” said Coach Gibbs. “As a part of that, he went up to purchase some late model stuff from Denny and struck up a relationship with Denny, put him in (for) 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.’

“That started the relationship and everything.”

“Thank you for that first check, by the way,” Hamlin cut in. “I got a set of rims for my truck and a plasma TV. … That was a hit in my town.”

According to Joe Gibbs, Hamlin’s statement wasn’t inaccurate, either. It also led to even greater things.

“He had nothing, okay?” said Joe Gibbs of Hamlin when he first joined Joe Gibbs Racing. “Three years later, he bought a house next to me that was twice as big as my house.

“That should just tell you that I get in the wrong end of everything,” Gibbs joked.

Denny Hamlin’s crew stands on pit wall in tribute to J.D. Gibbs on lap 11 of the Daytona 500. (Toyota Racing photo)

Taking a moment to collect his thoughts, the Pro Football Hall of Famer and former Redskins coach’s voice wavered as he discussed all the little things that combined to make Sunday’s result what it was.

“J.D.’s favorite number was 11 when he raced. That’s what he had,” said Joe Gibbs. “Denny’s number is 11. Denny put J.D. over the door post on that car, and to have that take place … everything that took place tonight, everybody knows what this means. We’ve been to Daytona 27 times. We had won twice before tonight. It’s so tough to win here and to win this race.

“When you’re thinking about things, I guess everybody could say, ‘Well, that just happened.’ I don’t believe that just happened,” he stated. “I honestly believe the Lord looked down on us, and I know J.D. and everybody in my family was emotional. I called home to Pat, and I called sponsors that were emotional, too. We all felt it.”

A day that started with a lap-11 tribute to J.D. Gibbs’ memory ended with a win by his car number, an ending that in Hollywood could easily see the team walk off into the sunset.

Don’t expect the Gibbs family to go anywhere, though. As Joe Gibbs pointed out in his final comments, going in circles is all they know.

“Racing is the only thing me and my family want to do,” he said. “We don’t have anything else, so this has to go (well). And it surely did tonight.”