Denny Hamlin cruises to 2nd Daytona 500 victory in 4 years

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 battling a degenerative neurological disease.

J.D. Gibbs helped his father start the race team, ran it while Joe Gibbs was coaching the Washington Redskins, 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 J.D. Gibbs’ name is on the Toyota.

When Hamlin stopped his car along the frontstretch to collect the checkered flag, he immediately 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. “We are desperately going to miss him the rest of our lives. His legacy still lives on through Joe Gibbs Racing and proud to do this for them.”

Hamlin was met in victory lane by the entire 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 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 victory 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.

Busch, now winless in 14 Daytona 500s, was initially openly disappointed in falling short.

“He’s got two, I’ve got none, and that’s just the way it goes sometimes,” Busch said.

But he reiterated the JGR and Toyota goal of working together to win the race and noted he didn’t have much of a shot at beating Hamlin because the field had been decimated by a flurry of late accidents.

“Was trying to make sure one of us gets to victory lane, first and foremost,” Busch said. “There wasn’t enough cars out there running at the end. I don’t know how it would have played out.”

The Cup Series slogged through three uninspiring exhibition races during Speedweeks to cause concern over a potentially disappointing main event. Jim France, who took over as chairman of NASCAR last 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.

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