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Twist of fate: Hamlin reunited with lost hat signed by Joe Gibbs in 1992

RICHMOND, VA. — It all started with a hat.

In 1992, an 11-year-old boy met Joe Gibbs, who had just started a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series team, and got his autograph on a Washington Redskins’ Super Bowl XXVI hat.

MORE: Behind-the-scenes: Hamlin at Redskins’ camp

That same young man confidently made a bold prediction that day: He told Gibbs he wanted to race for him.

Fast forward to 2018, that 11-year-old fan is now a 31-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series winner for Joe Gibbs Racing — and his name is Denny Hamlin.

A 12-year-old Denny Hamlin meets with Joe Gibbs in 1992
Photo credit: Joe Gibbs Racing

“He (Gibbs) was there with Dale Jarrett for an autograph session,” Hamlin reminisced on his first interaction with the team owner. “At that time, I was pretty deep into go-karts. I was racing on a national level, and he was my favorite football coach. He was here locally in Virginia, and I felt the need to say ‘Hey! I would love to drive for you someday.’ Crazy about 10-12 years later, it all worked out.”

A photo of the pair from the meet-and-greet 26 years ago still sits on Gibbs’ desk at the racing shop. Hamlin proudly wearing the maroon-and-gold-striped hat that was his prized possession with a giant smile standing next to a childhood hero.

But Hamlin’s slight pre-teen rebellion led to an unfortunate hat accident.

“My parents told me not to take it to school and I did anyway,” he explained. “I wore it on the school bus because I wanted to show it off and of course, it flies right out the window. That hat was never to be gotten again.”

“Joe knows I lost the hat. He is well aware. It’s cool I go into his office, any time you get one of those sit-down meetings with Joe, it’s right there on his desk the picture of me and him…”

Super Bowl Hat
Allie Davison | NASCAR Digital Media

However, in a twist of fate, during a visit to Redskins’ preseason camp, quarterback Alex Smith had a special delivery for the No. 11 driver (with the help from his sponsor FedEx): The same vintage Super Bowl hat … that was never to be gotten again.

Twenty six years is a long time, and Gibbs is one of the most recognizable and famous Washington Redskins members around so the ‘Coach’ doesn’t quite remember meeting that eager young boy who wanted an autograph like so many do, but when he sits at his desk surrounded by memorabilia — he sees that photo from so long ago. And it means something.

“The fact that we have that picture is awesome,” Gibbs shared. “It does bring back memories.”

Denny Hamlin Joe Gibbs
Photo credit: Joe Gibbs Racing

There’s a reason why Hamlin is under the Joe Gibbs Racing roof, and it’s not just because he’s talented behind the wheel. His allegiance to the three-time Super Bowl winning coach’s team might have given him a leg up on the competition.

“It’s one of the thrills of your life getting to pull for your team,” Gibbs said. “And he was right there growing up where everything was going on with the Redskins. … If you’re not a Redskins fan I’m probably not going to hire ya.”

Hamlin signed on with JGR full-time beginning with the 2006 season and has since gone to compete in 457 premier series races for his favorite football coach, racking up 138 top-fives and 28 pole awards alongside his 31 victories.

And to think … it all started with a hat.