'I want to be more like J.D.': Memory of son sparks Hall of Famer Joe Gibbs

David Goricki
The Detroit News

Football fans know Joe Gibbs for being one of the greatest coaches in NFL history. Gibbs guided the Washington Redskins to three Super Bowl titles (1982, 1987, 1991), with a different quarterback each time, and was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

But motor sports fans know the 78-year-old Gibbs for putting together a powerhouse in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup series during the last three decades.

Joe Gibbs

Gibbs asked his sons, J.D. and Coy, what they wanted to do after their college football playing days and surprisingly they told him they wanted to pursue careers in racing, not football.

So Gibbs got a sponsorship deal with Interstate Batteries in 1991 and went to work with his boys, building a one-car team with driver Dale Jarrett coming on board with 17 employees.

Now, Joe Gibbs Racing has 550 employees and 10 teams over NASCAR’s three series: Trucks, Xfinity and Monster Energy.

JGR has four Monster Energy NASCAR Cup championships – two by Tony Stewart and one apiece by Bobby Labonte and Kyle Busch. But his four-car team has never been better than this season in the Toyota.

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JGR drivers have won nine of the 14 races heading into Sunday’s FireKeepers Casino 400 at Michigan International Speedway with Busch owning a series-high four wins and Martin Truex Jr. three. Denny Hamlin has two wins, including the Daytona 500, which was dedicated to the memory of Gibbs’ son, J.D., who passed away Jan. 11, just a month before the race.

Gibbs learned last month he will be inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame, joining the 2020 class along with two of his former drivers in Stewart and Labonte.

 “When I came over to racing I was scared to death to do anything else, because all I had done was coach,” Gibbs told The Detroit News. “People asked me what’s the difference and I would say they really parallel each other so much. In football you have to have a great quarterback or you’re not going anywhere. Over here you have to have a great driver or you’re not going anywhere. In football, you have to have a really good coach and over here and you have to have really good crew chiefs.

“The fact that I get to go in (Hall of Fame) with Bobby Labonte and Tony Stewart is incredible. When we brought them to our race team they were a big part in helping us grow, giving us credibility. Both of them won their first Cup race with us and went on to have fantastic careers. Bobby having won that championship for us (in 2000) really got us going. It’s going to be a thrill to go in with them. It will be fun.”

Remembering J.D.

Gibbs is grateful that he was able to work with his sons in such a high-level sport. J.D. was the company’s president. He found Hamlin, who was competing in late models and brought him to JGR 15 years ago. Coy is chief operating officer at JGR.

“Both of my boys loved racing,” Joe said. “We went to the races when they were younger and they grew up with jet skis, motor bikes and go-karts, and when J.D. graduated and Coy graduated, we talked it over and they said we’d rather do something in racing rather than coaching, so that prompted us to put together a dream on a piece of paper.

J.D. Gibbs

“We had 17 people and had our first race car, and I felt that was the way it would always be.

“We didn’t win anything that first year, then Dale won the Daytona 500 in that second year and that was an unbelievable experience for us. It was a struggle that first year, and even the second, but it got us going. I was really scared that first year because it was a big deal. I was saying, ‘Hey, do we belong in this?’ and then we won that race and it really helped all of us a lot.”

JGR continued to grow and thrive and Gibbs collected his first Cup championship in 2000 with Labonte. More championships would follow in 2002 and 2005 (Stewart) and 2015 (Busch).

But in 2015, J.D. was diagnosed with a neurodegenerative disease that eventually claimed his life this past January at age 49.

“J.D. spent 27 years of his life building the race team,” Joe said. “He was the president. He spoke in public. He was charismatic when it came to talking to sponsors and working with them.

“With everything that happened to J.D., I look to his life now and I want to be more like J.D. I’ve got stories on my desk of hundreds of people that have written me and tell stories about J.D. and how he helped them. I got one on my desk from a little girl who said, ‘I came to the race shop and I can’t walk very good and J.D. saw me and took me on a two-hour tour of the race shop.’

“J.D. spent two days in hospice and I went up and stayed with him and the nurses told me when J.D. was healthy a number of years back he used to come up to hospice and talk to the patients. He had a real heart for people and I think his life and everything that happened, it’s really one the great stories that took place in my life.”

J.D. was a board member of Young Life, a Christian ministry that provides leadership and direction for young people. The J.D. Gibbs Legacy Fund supports Young Life and the fund’s website (jdgibbslegacy.com) tells J.D.’s story.

“J.D. was truly never, ever a disappointment in his entire life,” Joe said. “Forty-nine years and I miss him so much now, but I know he’s in a better place. I woke up the next morning, when J.D. went with the Lord, and I had mixed emotions because I missed him so much, but I knew he was in heaven with God and knew he could have a good meal, which he couldn’t do here, he could use his hands, walk, go for a run and talk with his friends. It gave me a different outlook on heaven because if something happens to me, I’m going to be excited because I’m going to see J.D.”

Busch sets the pace

Gibbs has arguably the top driver in the series in the 34-year-old Busch, who has 206 career wins over NASCAR’s three series, including 55 career Monster Energy Cup wins. After winning the series championship in 2015, he finished third in ’16, second in ’17, fourth last year and is currently the points leader.

Kyle Busch

“If you look at him the thrill of his life is racing,” said Gibbs of Busch. “He wants to be in a car all the time. People at this level, a lot of guys want to drive race cars, but very few of them are gifted and this guy is gifted. He has tremendous passion for it and has a real gift.”

Busch suffered serious injuries at Daytona to start the 2015 season, then missed 11 races before returning to win the championship, winning five of the final 25 races, including the finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

“I think all of the championships were special, each one you really cherish,” Gibbs said. “The big thing with Kyle and what happened that year, for him to get hurt that bad and be able to bounce back, it was really phenomenal what he was able to do.”

Truex and his crew chief Cole Pearn joined JGR this year after winning the series title with Furniture Row Racing back in 2017 while having a technical alliance with JGR.

“I think what they’ve done is helped us a lot,” said Gibbs of Truex and Pearn. “When you bring in a Cole Pearn, this guy is very bright, highly motivated, and when you fit him in with your other crew chiefs, I think he’s elevated our program.

“And when you get a chance to get a guy like Martin, that’s great. We have our technical meetings here, all of our drivers are in it, and Erik (Jones) gets to hear Martin, gets to hear Denny (Hamlin), gets to hear Kyle (Busch), you can imagine the learning experience for him. Oone of the hardest things to get over here is the crew chief/driver combination, and Cole and Martin are really, really good.”

Look to the future

Gibbs and his sons have never been afraid to bring in young talent, adding Joey Logano more than a decade ago at age 18, then giving Michigan native Erik Jones a chance as a 19-year-old several years ago.

Erik Jones

Jones won his first race at Daytona last year in the July race. He finished third at Pocono last weekend.

“We’ve got huge amounts of effort and resources for Erik because we think he’s an unusual talent,” said Gibbs of Jones. “He was a killer in Trucks and Xfinity and now he’s in the Cup. We think he’s right on the verge of breaking through. We really like him. He’s our young guy in the group and has a lot of talent.”

Gibbs is now getting the chance to work with his grandsons, J.D.’s sons Jackson and Miller – both football players at Appalachian State – and Jason, who wants to be an engineer. Coy’s son Ty is a driver in late model stocks, ARCA and K&N Pro Series. Jackson had an offer from Michigan before picking UCLA, then transferring to Appalachian State.

“I work on the business side and now we have grandkids interning in different areas,” Gibbs said. “I have my two oldest grandkids, Jackson and Miller, interning with us, and then J.D.’s other son Jason wants to be an engineer. And, on Cory’s side, we have one, Ty, who is racing full-time, racing all over the country.”

Perhaps there’s another future Hall of Famer in the family.

FireKeepers Casino 400

When: 2 p.m., Sunday, June 9


Support races: ARCA Menards Series 200, Friday, June 7, 6:30 p.m.; NASCAR Xfinity Series LTi Printing 250, Saturday, June 8, 1:30 p.m.