It is called the Great American Race, the 61st running of the Daytona 500, however, it was my first race in attendance at the Daytona International Speedway.
JJ Watt was the Grand Marshal becoming the first NFL Player to kick off the race, Julian Edelman fresh off his Super Bowl victory with the New England Patriots waved the green flag.
The 2019 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season kicked off with the Daytona 500, which was sold out for the 4th consecutive year.
I will never forget it, as a matter of fact, the only group who had a more joyous time than me, Denny Hamlin and the Joe Gibbs Racing team.
Hamlin won NASCAR’s Super Bowl 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 battling a degenerative neurological disease.
“I was in the same position last year leading on the final restart,” Hamlin said. “I didn’t make the right the decision, and this year I made the right decision.”
Hamlin snapped a 47-race winless streak.
“Some of the greatest drivers had winless seasons. Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon, those guys. I mean, I’m not — I was never doubting whether I was still capable of winning races,” Hamlin stated. “I’m still not, as you know. I’m only 38, by the way. Why is everyone trying to shove me out the door? I’m 38. Statistics say 39 is your prime. What’s wrong with you people?”
J.D. Gibbs helped his father start the race team, ran it while Joe Gibbs was coaching the Washington Redskins in the National Football League, was a tire changer on the team’s first Daytona 500 victory and the one who 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 now J.D. Gibbs’ name is on the Toyota.
“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,” Joe Gibbs stated. “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.”
Hamlin was met in Victory Lane by the entire Gibbs family, including J.D.’s widow and four sons.
J.D. now is gone, he had his fingerprints all over today’s winning team. 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 victory was the 100th for JGR in a Camry.
“J.D.’s favorite number was 11 when he raced. 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,” Gibbs stated. “ 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.”
Hamlin made a crew chief change during the offseason. When he won the 500 in 2016, it was his debut race with crew chief Mike Wheeler, and this victory came in his first race with Chris Gabehart.
“I have so much confidence in the people around us, Joe Gibbs Racing and FedEx and Denny trusting in me to allow me to do this,” Gabehart said. “And we’ve just got such a strong group around us. I’m just the lucky guy that every now and then gets to jump up and call the play.”
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.
J.D. delivered an emotional response; however from start to finish; It was not as easy as 1-2-3. Instead, it was an action-packed and wreck-filled running of “The Great American Race.”
A huge pile up with chaos, fire, and sparks equaling 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. During the second red flag, one of NASCAR’s track-drying trucks broke down while cleaning oil off the racing surface.
My first race in person required overtime for completion.
“You know, it is what it is. Just at least we got a JGR car in Victory Lane,” Busch stated. “That’s the big picture. That’s what matters, and we move on.”
Busch is now winless in 14 Daytona 500s.
“Obviously we all miss J.D., and to come here and have such a good run — we had a good run but we had really good cars all weekend,” Jones stated. “We had good speed, and to come out one, two, three, it’s pretty neat, and not only that, we were up there in contention all day, so that was a great day for us overall. Pretty storybook I would say.”
Jones managed to drive his damaged No. 20 Toyota hanging on to that third-place finish in the Daytona 500, his career-best finish in the 500. At one point, Jones had to drop out of the pack of cars racing on the backstretch when he suddenly lost fuel pressure.
“You know, the car was still pretty good after the damage,” Jones stated. “It looks really tore up, but it went down the straightaway really good.”
Hamlin is sponsored by Jordan brand, named after Michael Jordan. He became the first NASCAR driver to sign with Jordan Brand in 2011. Hamlin is a basketball fan who has a full court with lights and a scoreboard at his house. He has had courtside seats at Charlotte Hornets games dating back to 2007.
In 2010, Jordan, the owner of the team, recognized the driver at a game and the two struck up a friendship. Jordan, who founded Michael Jordan Motorsports (MJM) in 2004, agreed to let Hamlin rep his brand, marking the first sneaker brand sponsorship in the NASCAR circuit since Adidas sponsored Dale Earnhardt, Jr. in 2007. Coincidently, the race was on Jordan’s birthday.
A gift of a win, for those physically here and gone.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.