HOMESTEAD, Fla. — It was Kyle Busch's championship evening at Homestead-Miami Speedway Sunday, but it also had the distinctive feel of being a J.D. Gibbs kind of achievement.
Gibbs, team owner Joe Gibbs' oldest son, was president of the Joe Gibbs Racing team and an omnipresent source of positive vibes in the NASCAR garage for more than a decade. Typically smiling and joking, but also ultracompetitive, he led the team to four previous NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series championships and won hearts because of his enduring positivity.
J.D. Gibbs died Jan. 11 at age 49 after a lengthy fight against a degenerative neurological disease. His passing and its effect on the 2019 season has been simultaneously heartbreaking and heart-strengthening.
The last race J.D. attended was the 2015 Homestead season finale, which, coincidentally — or not, depending how you choose to believe — was the last time Kyle Busch won at Homestead and the race where he captured his first season championship.
Joe Gibbs was smiling widely in the celebration Sunday night following Busch's championship victory, but there was also an unmistakable special gleam in his eye. This one was for J.D.
"This has been an emotional year for us and for me, starting with the Daytona 500," Gibbs said of his driver Denny Hamlin's season-opening victory only a few weeks after J.D.'s death.
"And I think anyone that saw that would say there's no way that could happen by accident. I feel like God was kind of overseeing that and I think J.D. was there. And it kind of continued the entire year for me."
— NASCAR (@NASCAR) November 17, 2019
Hamlin's emotional win at Daytona was, Joe Gibbs believes, highly motivational to the entire team. Counting Busch's win at Homestead, the four-car JGR organization set a NASCAR modern-era (since 1972) record with 19 wins. All four of his drivers — Busch, Hamlin, Sunday's championship runner-up Martin Truex Jr. and young driver Erik Jones — won races this season and qualified for the playoffs.
"It's been emotional to win the number of races we've won," Joe Gibbs said. "It's just something that doesn't normally happen. I think [J.D.] has been a part of it, and everyone that worked at Joe Gibbs Racing when J.D. left us, each and every one of them, felt that.
"I think they have devoted this year to him and I know all of us did family-wise."
Busch acknowledged after the race Sunday night that he was thinking of J.D. and cognizant of his impact on the organization. Busch said he couldn't remember exactly whether J.D. or Coach Gibbs first reached out to bring him onto the team, but he spoke fondly about what J.D. has meant to him and his career.
"I know it's been a difficult time on [J.D.'s wife] Melissa and Joe [Gibbs]," Busch said in Victory Lane. "To be able to reward them with a championship, I know how much it means to them, but it's the best I can do."
"I know J.D. was looking down on us all year long."
Busch added, "He's an honorable man and honorable father and one that reflects the Lord and lived that way and showed people how to do that.
"A lot could be learned from those type of individuals."
— NASCAR (@NASCAR) November 17, 2019
That was evident this week in JGR's precedent-setting three entries in the championship race. It's the kind of lofty ambition J.D. would have absolutely appreciated — and the kind of accomplishment that would have made him so very proud.
Hamlin carried a special message on the back of his Toyota this weekend and a memorial to his friend all season long. J.D. wore No. 11 when he played high school football and Hamlin's Toyota is No. 11. J.D. hired a young Hamlin and gave him his first opportunity in NASCAR's big leagues.
Although Hamlin missed out on winning his first championship this weekend, he remained positive about the opportunity he had and was absolutely motivated to do even better next year.
He was smiling and positive even as he discussed his championship near-miss.
Listening to Hamlin speak, seeing his attitude all week, there was an unmistakable J.D. influence. From Busch's win to Hamlin's good try, from Truex's runner-up run to the 23-year old Jones' third-place finish Sunday, there was effort, results and positive momentum. J.D. would have been proud of that, too.
"I just want to say thanks to everyone," Joe Gibbs said. "People asked me if it was emotional all year. I felt like I could feel J.D. all year and it's kind of hard to put into words.
"But it's been special and different and was great to finish it up the way we did tonight."
Holly Cain writes for the NASCAR Wire Service.