Chris Graythen | Getty Images
Chris Graythen | Getty Images

Two-win weekend, family milestones hold special meaning for Gibbs

Coach Joe Gibbs was on the right side of two first-time victory celebrations last weekend, both delivered by two of the younger prospects in his racing operation’s system at Daytona International Speedway’s road course.

The Cup Series capper came Sunday from Christopher Bell, who validated his credentials as a can’t-miss prospect homegrown within Toyota’s development pipeline. Saturday’s Xfinity Series win was homegrown, too, but within Gibbs’ close-knit family — his 18-year-old grandson, Ty, did the honors in his series debut.

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It all came against the backdrop of what would have been J.D. Gibbs’ 52nd birthday Sunday. The coach’s son died in January 2019 after a long battle with a neurological condition, but his spirit and influence as a team executive remain a prominent part of Joe Gibbs Racing’s ongoing success.

“This is J.D.’s birthday today. Our family back home is celebrating it,” Coach Gibbs said after Sunday’s triumph with Bell. “There’s not a day goes by that I don’t think about him. Of course, any parent or grandparent out there would know what it feels like when you have that heartbreak. But J.D. spent his whole occupational life building our race team. So I think he’s getting a full view of it right now. I think he’s loving it. We sure miss him. I think everybody at Joe Gibbs Racing misses him.”

Part of J.D. Gibbs’ multi-faceted legacy at JGR was his knack for assembling winning pieces on the driver roster. The organization is stocked with two former champions in Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr., and with longtime title contender Denny Hamlin — all three respected veteran presences in the Cup Series garage. This weekend, the wins came all the same, but from newer contributors to the JGR effort.

Before his breakthrough, the 26-year-old Bell endured two forms of adversity — one longer-reaching and the other shorter. The long-term doldrums came in an uneven rookie campaign last year at Leavine Family Racing before leaving that affiliate for the JGR mothership this season. “Just the highs and lows,” Bell said. “Last year was very disheartening for me.”

The short-term ill was his role in sparking a massive pileup in the 2021 season-opening Daytona 500, his first race in JGR’s No. 20 ride. With twists and additional turns added to the Daytona venue a week later, Bell drove masterfully in avoiding the late-race minefield that thwarted several worthy contenders.

His team owner called it a “statement victory.” The Oklahoma native was reluctant to tout his accomplishment in quite the same way.

“I don’t know. I’d say that’s more for other people to say than me,” said Bell, who won in his 38th Cup Series start. “I knew going to Joe Gibbs Racing that this is my time. I’m either going to put up or shut up. I’m very grateful for how it’s played out so far between the first two weeks.”

Saturday’s prelude was every bit as special for the 80-year-old NASCAR Hall of Famer. Ty Gibbs had racked up eight ARCA Menards Series victories during the last two seasons, but expectations were more muted in his jump to Xfinity Series competition, despite having a strong steed in the No. 54 Toyota.

The teenager remained poised through multiple restarts and overtimes, surging after an off-track dip and holding off defending Xfinity Series champ Austin Cindric down the stretch. He was tearful as he searched for ways to express his feelings post-race, but was also quick to apologize for and take ownership of an interview he’d done at the same track a week before. In those post-race remarks, the young Gibbs spouted off after a fourth-place ARCA finish, drawing detractors that included JGR alum and Hall of Famer Dale Jarrett; one week later, a measure of accountability resonated within the joy.

His performance meant the first of his grandfather’s own back-to-back interviews as the winning team owner during Daytona’s road-racing weekend. Gibbs’ next generation of drivers signaled their arrival, and the family’s sense of pride swelled amid the memorable milestones.

“Everybody out there that’s a parent or a grandparent knows what I’m talking about,” the elder Gibbs said after Saturday’s victory. “It’s great when you see people achieve things, particularly on our race team and everything, but then you look and it’s your grandson. Everybody knows the experience and thrill that we have when our kids do things that are special. I think every parent or grandparent out there knows what I’m talking about. It’s just a thrill for us.

“I think back, we’ve had certainly some tough stuff in our family over the last three years with J.D., but to have this experience tonight is really special and different for us.”