Denny Hamlin wasn’t exactly NASCAR’s Babe Ruth this month – he didn’t formally “call” his victory in Sunday’s Daytona 500, but if you listened to him in the days leading up the race, there was an unmistakable sense of hope and confidence.
There was also a prevailing undercurrent of motivation. The biggest support system of the first 13 years of his full-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series career – from a part-time seven-race launch in 2005 to his present perennial championship runs – was J.D. Gibbs, who passed away. on Jan. 11 after a long battle with a degenerative neurological disease. The loss of Gibbs has been – and will continue to be – both emotional and motivational for Hamlin.
The season-opening Daytona 500 was the first points race Hamlin had competed in since losing his friend and the president of his Joe Gibbs Racing team. Add to that a compelling need to right a career-long trend of winning every year as Hamlin had for the first 12 of his 13 full-time years’ time driving for Gibbs and it’s easy to understand why he held the trophy a little higher, smiled a little wider.
Being out front on Sunday, taking the sport’s most celebrated checkered flag, was a need for Hamlin, unlike ever before.
“It’ll be super important,’’ Hamlin said before the race. “Everyone knows how important he [J.D. Gibbs] was for me and my career and everything he did for us, so certainly having success on track will be crucial for that.”
And as so often resulted in their time working together – what’s good for Gibbs was good for Hamlin. Sunday was the ultimate in vice versa.
The victory was Hamlin’s first since the 2017 Southern 500 at Darlington, S.C. - 48 races ago. No one expected the dry spell that followed.
Not only did Hamlin go winless in 2018, it was the first time in four years he didn’t win multiple races. So 2019 was a season to get back on track. Perhaps the strength it takes to cope with the emotional hurdle of his good friend and mentor’s passing also fortified him in other ways, creating a concrete opportunity to overcome.
The joy in Daytona International Speedway’s Victory Lane Sunday night was one-of-a-kind. More than once Hamlin’s team owner Joe Gibbs insisted with a huge smile that his son J.D. must be grinning from above. Hamlin sure believed it as well, immediately dedicating the win to J.D.
“I'd just like to retrace for a minute what happened tonight, which is ‑‑ it's the most emotional and the biggest win I've ever had in my life in anything,’’ Gibbs said in his opening remarks during the post-race press conference. “J.D. built our race team, was the guy that ran day‑to‑day operations for 27 years. He invested his occupational life in our race team.
“And 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 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.
“And so that started the relationship and everything. …”
Hamlin interrupted and joked about those early days pairing with J.D. – still so thankful for the break of his career. Then he listened intently as Joe Gibbs finished his thought.
“J.D.'s favorite number was 11 when he raced,’’ Gibbs continued. “That's what he had. 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, we've been to Daytona 27 times. We had won twice before. And so, you know, you're thinking about things, and I guess everybody could say, well, that just happened. I don't believe that just happened.
“I honestly believe it was ‑‑ I think the Lord looked down on us, and I know J.D. and everybody in my family was emotional. I called home to [his wife] Pat, and I called sponsors that were emotional, too.
“It was just an unbelievable night, unbelievable crowd. 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.”
On a more practical level, it was also an important start to the season for Hamlin, who has essentially assured himself a position in the Playoffs as a race winner. It creates a whole new vibe for the team and new crew chief Chris Gabehart, who immediately gets to be more aggressive in pursuit of additional race trophies. Winning early sets the tone of the year. It is a statement win with multiple exclamation points!!!
“You always feel like you have something to prove, but certainly this year in particular, I’m very fired up to go out there and win,’’ Hamlin said five days before the Daytona 500. The words now even more impactful considering his work on Sunday.
“Not one race, not two races, not even three – just like multiple races and show that we are a contender each and every week just like I know that we are,’’ Hamlin said. “You can always talk about the ones that got away last year, but that was last year. So what, now what? We’ve got to figure out what we’re going to do to change the narrative of our team that we’re on the decline.
“The sooner you get it, obviously the better you’re going to put yourself in position to be able to take those risky moves in the middle of the summer. I know winning early is very, very important. You punch your ticket for the Playoffs. Everything good happens when you win early, so it’s very important for us.”
And J.D. Gibbs would wholeheartedly agree.