Denny Hamlin was still grinning Monday morning at Daytona International Speedway, 12 hours after hoisting his second Daytona 500 trophy in victory lane. He met with the media, signed special pieces of speedway memorabilia and received the traditional Daytona 500 winner’s leather jacket during the annual champion’s breakfast.
There was a distinctively different vibe from last February, when 2018 Daytona 500 winner Austin Dillon was sharing stories of his victory tattoo and an all-night party.
Truth be told, Dillon’s rowdy celebration was more similar to Hamlin’s first Daytona 500 win in 2016, but this time around Hamlin has two young daughters, is nursing a cold and feeling all kinds of sentimental having won the sport’s biggest race only weeks after his close friend and Joe Gibbs Racing President J.D. Gibbs passed away.
Instead of burning the midnight oil, Hamlin joined his team owner – J.D.’s father Joe Gibbs – at a nearby Steak ‘n Shake for a more wholesome and fitting nod to his late friend. It’s a team tradition that took on significant meaning this year.
“We were running the streets,’’ Gibbs said jokingly of the celebration.
“Actually, this tradition started with our very first win [Dale Jarrett, 1993], we got lost in Daytona 500 winner’s circle, wound up grabbing the trophy, didn’t know you go to the media center, pulled out on the road from the track and went north and J.D. and (his other son) Coy said, ‘Hey dad, we’re starved,’ so I said ‘Steak ‘n Shake.’
“So we spent 30 minutes in the parking lot with fans and it was awesome. So a tradition started. Last night we did the same. We wound up with our whole group and a bunch of fans too.’’
As for any victory tattoos?
Again, Gibbs, Hamlin, and his winning crew chief Chris Gabehart laughed out loud.
“I got one,’’ Gibbs joked about the tattoo.
“Not me,’’ said Hamlin, who did however, receive congratulatory calls from NBA legends Michael Jordan on Sunday night and Charles Barkley on Monday morning.
While both Gibbs and Hamlin were able to smile about the celebration and trophies Monday morning, they both remained insistent, however, the best part of the victory was the opportunity to remember and honor J.D. Gibbs, who battled a degenerative neurological disease.
Hamlin’s No. 11 FedEx Toyota carried J.D.’s name and there was a moment of remembrance during Lap 11 of the Daytona 500.
The outcome – the victory and the happiness it produced - was a fantastic way to remember Gibbs, who was a positive, always-smiling presence in the NASCAR garage for years as a driver and then executive on the JGR team.
Winning was the expectation and Gibbs’ style of leadership certainly seemed to have worked the magic. The smiles, high fives and team celebrations this week are reminders of the J.D. Gibbs’ spirit that elevated the organization for years.
“The whole thing was just a special memory for me, and it's one I'll never forget, and it was the most important night of my occupational life,’’ Joe Gibbs said Sunday after the victory lane celebration.
It’s not only a sentimental accomplishment for the team, but also a strong signal of Hamlin’s competitiveness to come in 2019. The win assures him a position in the Playoffs this fall.
First though, Hamlin heads out Monday night on the Daytona 500 victory tour. On Tuesday, he will appear on FS1’s “First Things First,” on Live! With Kelly and Ryan; on Barstool Sports’ “Pardon My Take,’ and also at the New York Stock Exchange. He will make appearances on both The Weather Channel and CNN in Atlanta later in the week.
“There’s been a lot of one-time winners of big races, but certainly if you win a couple that’s a skill thing and if you put yourself in that position, certainly it’s validating for sure,’’ Hamlin said.