DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Denny Hamlin followed up the worst season of his NASCAR Cup Series career with a trip to victory lane in the biggest race of the season for a particularly emotional win.
After finishing the 2018 season without a win — a first for the Joe Gibbs Racing veteran — the No. 11 Toyota driver kicked off his 14th full-time season by surviving wild and wreck-filled final laps to win his second career Daytona 500 title on Sunday.
“This year being a whole new ball of wax, it’s a complete reset,” Hamlin said after his 32nd career Cup Series win. “There was no doubt, whether it was last year’s package or this year’s package, we’re gonna be successful and we’re going to win races.”
But for the 38-year-old driver, this win was “extra special.”
JGR co-founder and Joe Gibbs' oldest son, J.D. Gibbs, died in January at the age of 49 from complications from a degenerative neurological disease, and the team dedicated the victory to him on Twitter.
For his first Daytona 500 victory in 2016, Hamlin won by the most narrow margin in race history, edging Martin Truex Jr. by .01 seconds. But Sunday, he battled teammate Kyle Busch off an overtime restart on lap 205 to become the 12th driver to win multiple Daytona 500s.
Although Truex, who moved to Joe Gibbs Racing after the 2018 season, wrecked on lap 190, Gibbs still had three cars running at the end. And they made the most of it, with Hamlin, Busch and Erik Jones finishing 1-2-3. It’s the second time in Daytona 500 history a team finished with the top 3 spots, following Hendrick Motorsports in 1997.
“It’s the most emotional and the biggest win I’ve ever had in my life — in anything,” said team owner Joe Gibbs, who led the Washington Redskins to three Super Bowl wins.
“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’s the most important night of my occupational life.”
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While No. 11 is Hamlin’s car number, it was also J.D. Gibbs’ favorite number, Joe said, and the one he wore while playing football. So on the 11th lap of the Daytona 500, the crew members of all four teams lined up in their pit boxes to honor the late co-founder.
Hamlin also raced with a sticker honoring J.D. just outside his window on the car.
“I know (Joe Gibbs) would have been happy with any one of his cars going out there and getting a victory,” Hamlin said. “But obviously one with his son’s name on the door and number, it’s probably a little more special.”
Jones called it a “pretty storybook” finish, and the team’s Twitter account dedicated the win to J.D.
Even fourth-place finisher Joey Logano — the 2018 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion who drove for the Gibbs organization from 2009 to 2012 — had to admit there was something special about how the race ended.
“I’m a good driver, but for what J.D. had done for my career, it's the reason why I’m sitting here today,” Logano said after the race.
“As bad as I want to win it, it is pretty cool that the first race after his passing — to see those cars (finish) 1-2-3 — it says he’s up there watching and maybe giving you guys a little extra boost there at the end.”
Follow Michelle R. Martinelli on Twitter @MMartinelli4.