HOMESTEAD, Fla. (AP) — 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 four-time 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 winner-take-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 Motor Speedway in North Carolina in the early 2000s. Hamlin dedicated this NASCAR season to J.D., and he opened with a bang — a Daytona 500 victory that has propelled him to the brink of his first career 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 he 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.
Hamlin learned the hard way in a practice leading to this year's Daytona 500. He had a simple order from Coach and the No. 11 Toyota team — run with the other JGR cars, not the rest of the field. Hamlin felt he needed to stay in the pack of competitors and draft, a rogue plan that backfired when he was caught in a multicar wreck. Gibbs was furious when Hamlin met him in the garage.
"I mean, top lip gets trembling," Hamlin said. "I'm looking over at Coy, hoping he's going to save me from this. But he's not."
Gibbs delivered a classic tongue-lashing and demanded Hamlin pay for the car.
There's only one way in sports to soften even the most scathing scolding: win. Hamlin led a 1-2-3 sweep at Daytona and was met in victory lane by the entire Gibbs family, including J.D.'s widow and four sons.
Hamlin also got a pass on that repair bill.
"I don't think I've ever penalized anybody for anything," Gibbs said with a laugh, "but I threaten them every now and then."
Gibbs will be inducted year into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in the same class as his former driver and protege, Tony Stewart. Stewart left Gibbs after the 2008 season to form his own race team, and Stewart-Haas Racing driver Kevin Harvick is the outlier in the championship field that can stop JGR. Win or lose Sunday, the lessons Stewart learned from Gibbs have been passed down in his own race team.
"It's not things that you always see that show up at the racetrack. A lot of it pertains to everyday life, too,” Stewart said. “When you get a chance to sit with him long enough, and when you shut your mouth and listen, spend more time listening than talking, you can learn a lot from this guy, and I promise you, it helps."
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 (hash)DoItForJD buttons that executives and team members wore at the track and Hamlin has the same slogan emblazoned on the back of his Toyota.
“It's been kind of one of those unreal experiences,” Gibbs said.