It would be a mistake to dismiss the recent success of Joe Gibbs Racing drivers as mere coincidence.
In a star-crossed season for Toyota’s flagship organization, the medical issues confronting beloved team president J.D. Gibbs have become a rallying cry.
JGR drivers have won two of the three NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races since the March 25 announcement that Gibbs had begun treatment for symptoms affecting his speech and brain function. Gibbs’ condition will keep him away from the race track indefinitely.
Four days after the announcement, Denny Hamlin reasserted his mastery at Martinsville.
“J.D. is the one that gave me my start 10 years ago, and I can't be prouder to put Gibbs Racing back in Victory Lane,” Hamlin said after the race. “They've been with me for so long and believe in me—this is what happens.”
Last Sunday at Bristol, Matt Kenseth broke a 51-race winless streak, giving JGR its second victory in eight races this year, equaling the organization’s total for the entire 2014 season.
Sandwiched between the Hamlin and Kenseth victories was 18-year-old NASCAR Next alum Erik Jones’ maiden NASCAR XFINITY Series win at Texas Motor Speedway.
Carl Edwards, new to JGR this year, said Gibbs’ medical issues have galvanized the entire organization, starting with owner and founder Joe Gibbs, J.D.’s father.
“For me, it showed me how tough everyone at JGR is,” Edwards told the NASCAR Wire Service during the Texas weekend. “Coach Gibbs and J.D., for them to be dealing with something like this and to do it with such strength is so amazing.
“And so, yeah, I think for all of us, it's a moment of perspective and something that can rally us to do the best we can to best represent our team and to give Coach something really positive. I think it was really cool for Denny to pull off that win (at Martinsville).”
Darian Grubb, Edwards’ crew chief, echoed the sentiments of his driver.
“It’s just a testament to how strong of a person J.D. is and how big a part of the organization he is,” Grubb said. “Everybody is going to keep pulling together on their weight to push harder and harder to get wins and get Joe Gibbs Racing to where it should be.”
The announcement of J.D. Gibbs medical condition was the second major blow of the season to an organization that had already lost one of its elite drivers. The day before he was to race in the season-opening Daytona 500, Kyle Busch slammed nose-first into a concrete wall in Turn 1 at Daytona in his NASCAR XFINITY Series car and fractured his right leg and left foot.
Busch, an expectant father, hasn’t raced since, and there is no specific timetable for his return. Yet, the issues that J.D. Gibbs has been battling have helped give Busch a big-picture perspective.
“To your question about J.D., I mean things could be a whole heck of a lot worse (from the accident),” Busch said. “I'm thankful it's not worse than it was. I could have had a serious neck or head injury or even worse. To us, we've prayed about it and been thankful for it and that I'm still here and actually able to be part of the birth of our son here in a couple weeks.”
After the XFINITY race at Texas, both Jones and Joe Gibbs talked to J.D. on the phone. There was a catch in Joe Gibbs’ voice as he spoke of his son.
“We talked to him tonight,” Gibbs said. “I appreciate Erik. ... Erik talked to him. J.D. is special. I talked to him tonight, and he said ‘I wish I could be there.’
“It’s something that gets to you—he’s doing good.”
Last Sunday at Bristol, Hamlin had his own issues. He started the race in his No. 11 Toyota but reported he had developed neck spasms in the opening laps. After a rain delay of nearly four hours, during which he received treatment that didn’t alleviate the symptoms, Hamlin opted out of the race in favor of Jones.
But Hamlin’s issues were minor in comparison with those of J.D. Gibbs, who was running day-to-day operations JGR when Hamlin first started working with the company a decade ago. Hamlin has been inspired by J.D.’s ability to stay positive throughout the crisis.
“Really, he seems upbeat about it,” Hamlin said. “It's not something that he really harps on, but obviously it's something that's very serious and you have to treat it seriously.
“I think that they've got some of the best doctors in the world trying to help him and trying to figure out what's going on and I think they're still in the process of figuring out what all is going on so that will be ongoing...”
Though Kenseth didn’t join JGR until 2013, he, like Hamlin, has developed a close relationship with J.D. Gibbs. After Kenseth won Sunday’s race at Bristol, J.D. got another phone call.
“I think he has a special relationship with Matt,” Joe Gibbs said “They always joke with each other and they're always ... I don't know what he said on the phone, but I got J.D. on there, and I think he ripped Matt right away.”
“Yes, he did,” Kenseth acknowledged.
“He’s back to form,” Joe Gibbs added.
“He’s like, ‘You won a race?!’” Kenseth rejoined. “That’s exactly what he said.”
Though J.D. Gibbs can’t come to the track, clearly, his spirit is there, permeating the entire racing operation.
And, just as clearly, the drivers and their teams are better for it.