DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Denny Hamlin came to the Daytona 500 determined to honor his late car owner with a victory.
He delivered with a storybook tribute for Joe Gibbs Racing.
Hamlin won NASCAR’s biggest race for the second time in four years Sunday, leading JGR in a 1-2-3 sweep of the podium in overtime. The race and the season have been dedicated to J.D. Gibbs, Joe Gibbs’ eldest son who died last month after dealing with a degenerative neurological disease.
J.D. Gibbs helped his father start the race team, ran it while Joe Gibbs was coaching Washington’s NFL team, was a tire changer on the team’s first Daytona 500 victory and discovered Hamlin during a test session at Hickory Motor Speedway in North Carolina. Hamlin was hired to drive the No. 11 — the number J.D. Gibbs used when he played football — and J.D. Gibbs’ name is on the Toyota.
When Hamlin stopped his car along the front stretch to collect the checkered flag, he credited J.D. Gibbs.
“The whole family, they did so much for me over the course of my career, and this one is for J.D,” Hamlin said.
He was met in victory lane by the Gibbs family, including J.D.’s widow and four sons.
“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,” Hamlin said. “Just to have Melissa (Gibbs) and all the kids here, it’s just crazy.”
Joe Gibbs, the Hall of Fame NFL head coach with three Super Bowl victories, ranked the tribute win to his son first in his career accomplishments. J.D. Gibbs encouraged his father to move the team from a crowded Chevrolet camp to become Toyota’s flagship team in 2008, and the Daytona 500 win was the 100th for JGR in a Camry.
“It is the most emotional and biggest win I’ve ever had in my life, in anything,” Gibbs said. “It was the most important night in my occupational life. I know J.D., and everybody in my family was emotional.”
Kyle Busch and Erik Jones finished second and third as JGR became the second team in NASCAR history to sweep the Daytona 500 podium. Hendrick Motorsports did it in 1997 with Jeff Gordon, Terry Labonte and Ricky Craven.
The Cup Series slogged through three uninspiring exhibition races during Speedweeks to cause concern over a potentially disappointing main event. Jim France, who became chairman of NASCAR in August, used the pre-race driver meeting to ask the drivers to liven up the activity. Hamlin and Chase Elliott were the rare drivers to use the bottom lane in the exhibition races while the rest of the field ran single-file along the top.
“I hope a few of you drivers out there will get down on the bottom with Denny and Chase and put on a good show today,” France told the field.
The drivers obeyed and delivered an action-packed and wreck-filled running of “The Great American Race.”
There was an accident on pit road, a 21-car crash, 12 cautions and five wrecks in the final 20 laps of regulation. The race was stopped twice for cleanup totaling nearly 40 minutes in the final stretch.
Hamlin and Busch alternated as the leaders during the handful of late restarts, and the final rush to the checkered flag was a push to hold off Ford driver and reigning NASCAR champion Joey Logano. The Ford camp went 1-2-3 in both of Thursday’s qualifying races and was favored to win the Daytona 500.
Logano, who started his career at JGR, settled for fourth and also took a moment to honor J.D. Gibbs.
“I’m not a Gibbs driver, but for what J.D. has done for my career is the reason why I’m sitting here today,” Logano said. “As bad as I want to win it, it is pretty cool to think that the first race after his passing, to see those guys one, two, three, it just says he’s up there watching and maybe gave (those) guys a little extra boost there at the end.”
Michael McDowell was fifth in a Ford but aggravated Logano by not working with him in the two-lap overtime sprint to the finish.
“I just told him that my team doesn’t pay me to push Joey Logano to a win,” McDowell said.
William Byron and Alex Bowman were the youngest front row in race history but had little to show for it after the race. Bowman finished 11th and Byron, the pole-sitter, was 21st.
Jenna Fryer is an Associated Press writer.
This post was originally posted at https://www.sfgate.com/sports/article/Denny-Hamlin-cruises-to-2nd-Daytona-500-victory-13624349.php.