— -- DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- There he was, hanging out in the back.
Victory Lane at the Daytona 500 is always an overcrowded place. There are hundreds of people packed into a fenced-in lot designed for dozens. A mob of sweaty, overstimulated corporate executives, NASCAR officials, media members, fans who managed to sneak in through a side gate and ... oh yeah, Denny Hamlin and his team, the ones who'd just become Daytona 500 champions.
On Sunday afternoon, as confetti cannons fired into the setting sun, the architect of that team had blended into the background. But the men that he'd assembled were having nothing of it. The call began to echo through the FedEx crew.
The sea of black uniforms parted and they guided the man to the front of the stage to take his place with Hamlin, alongside the Harley J. Earl Trophy, just in time for the ceremonial champagne spray.
The driver grabbed the man and hugged his neck. "We love you, brother. This is for you."
J.D. Gibbs is the president of Joe Gibbs Racing, the team founded in 1992 by its namesake and his father, the Pro Football Hall of Famer. When the elder Gibbs decided to leave his post as head coach of the Washington Redskins to fully focus on owning a NASCAR team, every move he made was with J.D. at his side. The kid was 23 years old.
When his father returned to the NFL in 2004, J.D. was left to run the race team. He signed Hamlin, himself 23 years old, to a JGR development deal after stumbling over the Virginian during a Late Model test. The following year, they won the Sprint Cup championship with Tony Stewart. In 2008 he oversaw the signing of Kyle Busch, one year after electing to take a manufacturing plunge, switching from General Motors to NASCAR newbie Toyota. J.D. Gibbs made the call to scale down JGR's in-house engine program, choosing to go all-in with Toyota Racing Development. An offshoot of that big move was solidifying the team's role as the flagship of Toyota's NASCAR effort. A byproduct of that move was a technical relationship with Furniture Row Racing and its driver, Martin Truex Jr.
On Sunday, all of those forces put in motion by J.D. Gibbs combined to overwhelm the 58th edition of Great American Race. Hamlin powered past teammate Matt Kenseth to take the lead on the race's final lap, edged Truex by the closest margin of victory since NASCAR introduced electronic scoring in 1993, and was followed by two more teammates, Kyle Busch (third) and Carl Edwards (fifth). And it all happened on J.D. Gibbs's 47th birthday.
"He's the guy that took a chance on me," Hamlin said in Victory Lane. "This is the biggest win of my life. He's not at every race. But to have him here with me today, that's just how it was supposed to be, wasn't it?"
Having J.D. in Daytona was not a given. Nor was it when Busch won the team's fourth Cup series title at Homestead-Miami Speedway three months ago. But he was there for both. Having him anywhere isn't a given. It was a little less than a year ago that Joe Gibbs announced that his outgoing, gregarious son was suffering from mysterious symptoms that were slowing his speech and brain function. Initially, he continued to sit in on team meetings, but was kept away from the racetrack. By autumn, he started showing up spur of the moment on the occasional race day, typically with one or more of his four sons.
When he did show up, the garage embraced him. Sometimes he might recall everyone's names, and sometimes he might not. But any questions about his condition from anyone outside the NASCAR community were always politely deflected. They still are, in one part to respect and protect a beloved man, but also because tests and treatments are ongoing, with some hits and some misses.
There have been plenty of theories as to the cause of his condition. He was a college football player at William & Mary. He made 30 starts behind the wheel in NASCAR's lower levels. He also had a love for extreme sports, especially mountain biking and snowboarding. That's a lot of potential hard hits.
But any speculation is just that, speculation. Sunday wasn't about speculation. It was about celebration. It was a near-perfect day that started with the celebration of his birthday and ended with a celebration on the most hallowed ground in stock car racing.
Though J.D. Gibbs might have trouble processing the world around him as quickly as he used to, he clearly had no issues recalling the routine to Victory Lane, yanking a series of sponsor caps onto his head and pointing and shouting "Wooo!" for every photo. They were the instincts of a man who has celebrated nearly 250 wins across NASCAR's top three divisions. The last snap of the day was a picture with wife Melissa and their boys with the trophy. Then he attempted to quietly slide out of the crowd and head back to the family motorcoach.
The escape was slow-going. Everyone wanted one more handshake, one more hug. Plus, today had been a special day, win or lose. The team that J.D. Gibbs built had given him the ultimate NASCAR birthday gift after the checkered flag. But even a Daytona 500 win couldn't top the gifts he'd been handing out to his team, family and friends prior to the green flag.
As I walked by Gibbs on the prerace grid, he grabbed me by the arm.
"Hey, McGee, what's up?" It was a stunningly joyous moment.
"He was recalling names today," a team member verified. "That's a big deal."
Yes it is. Just as big as winning the sport's biggest race.