Gibbs’ son still close to his heart

Mem­o­ries come out dur­ing team’s cham­pi­onship push

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - AUTO RACING - By Dan Gelston

HOMESTEAD, Fla. — Joe Gibbs keeps me­men­tos of his late son on his of­fice desk. There’s a photo of a lit­tle girl who could barely walk but whose day bright­ened when J.D. Gibbs sur­prised her with a tour of the Joe Gibbs Racing shop. Hun­dreds of let­ters are stacked on the desk, writ­ten by fans, friends, strangers, all want­ing to say thank you to J.D. for acts of kind­ness, big or small.

Gibbs turns 79 later this month and has spent a life­time as a leader of men, no­tably as a three-time Su­per Bowl cham­pion coach for the Wash­ing­ton Red­skins and a four­time NASCAR Cup Se­ries cham­pi­onship owner. He has three shots to win a fifth ti­tle Sunday at Homestead-Mi­ami Speed­way with a loaded lineup of Martin Truex Jr., Denny Ham­lin and Kyle Busch all in cham­pi­onship con­tention for the win­ner­take-all race.

Though the cham­pi­onship push comes tinged with sad­ness for Gibbs, those daily re­minders of the dif­fer­ence his son made to oth­ers have helped ease the pain of his Jan­uary death.

“I think it made a big im­pres­sion on me from the stand­point (that) I’m kind of do­ing big things and big this and big that,” Gibbs said. “J.D. would take in­di­vid­ual time, and it comes back over and over again.”

Gibbs quit the Red­skins twice, each time sur­ren­der­ing the high-pro­file job to de­vote more time to his fam­ily. Gibbs’ sons, J.D. and Coy, fol­lowed him into JGR, and it was J.D. who dis­cov­ered Ham­lin at a late-model test at Hick­ory (N.C.) Mo­tor Speed­way in the early 2000s. Ham­lin ded­i­cated this NASCAR sea­son to J.D., and he opened with a bang — a Day­tona 500 win that has pro­pelled him to the brink of his first Cup ti­tle.

Gibbs even chan­neled his son’s ethos dur­ing the sea­son when Ham­lin was go­ing through a rough patch in his per­sonal life. Ham­lin and Gibbs had the kind of heart-to-heart talks that hadn’t nec­es­sar­ily de­fined their 15-year work­ing re­la­tion­ship.

Gibbs sup­ported Ham­lin just as he be­lieved J.D. would have been by the driver’s side.

“I leaned on him quite a bit. He helped me through. He re­ally did,” Ham­lin said. “I think oddly enough, as all that went on, my per­for­mance went straight up, very lin­ear. He’s a per­son that, although I don’t talk to much out­side of racing, when I needed him, he was there and he helped.”

J.D. Gibbs played de­fen­sive back and quar­ter­back at Wil­liam & Mary (1987-90) while his father coached the Red­skins. He tran­si­tioned into NASCAR and the fam­ily busi­ness when the el­der Gibbs launched his NASCAR team in 1992.

J.D. Gibbs was even­tu­ally co-chair­man of JGR but be­gan with the or­ga­ni­za­tion as a part-time driver and over-the-wall crew mem­ber. He even made 13 NASCAR na­tional se­ries starts be­tween 1998 and 2002. He stepped away from JGR in 2015 when it was an­nounced he was suf­fer­ing from “con­di­tions re­lated to brain func­tion.” He was 49 when he died from com­pli­ca­tions a long bat­tle with a de­gen­er­a­tive neu­ro­log­i­cal disease.

Joe Gibbs smiles when thinks of how much J.D. would love how the four-car team is hav­ing one of NASCAR’s great sea­sons, with 18 wins in 35 races and Truex and Busch in po­si­tion for a sec­ond ca­reer Cup ti­tle.

“He’s in our team meet­ings each and ev­ery week, and I think his at­ten­dance rat­ing is prob­a­bly bet­ter than all the driv­ers’ com­bined,” Busch said. “(He has the) abil­ity to be able to be around the shop and have the ca­ma­raderie with the em­ploy­ees and to have ev­ery­body pulling a lit­tle ex­tra and go­ing for a lit­tle bit more all the time.”

Push­ing 80, Gibbs hasn’t lost his com­pet­i­tive edge.

J.D.’s wi­dow, Melissa, and their sons are ex­pected at the fi­nale in Homestead, where they’ll get an­other look at how much the vi­sion­ary behind the ca­reers of so many star driv­ers meant to the sport. Toy­ota made #DoItForJD but­tons that ex­ec­u­tives and team mem­bers wore at the track — and could land in some cel­e­bra­tory pho­tos if one of those JGR cars has a cham­pi­onship bash.

“It’s been kind of one of those un­real ex­pe­ri­ences,” Gibbs said.

TERRY RENNA/AP

Team owner Joe Gibbs watches Satur­day’s Cup Se­ries prac­tice.

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