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Parks Pit Report: 61st Annual Daytona 500

A chaotic afternoon yielded an emotional night for Joe Gibbs Racing.

It had everything one could ask for in a season opener.  One driver making his final career start, others making their first, veterans wanting another chance at the big trophy, while others were craving their first taste.

It’s really what Daytona is all about; an entire season of joy and sometimes heartache in one afternoon.

This event has all the glitz and glamour of a parade on a major holiday, the anxiety of waiting for the green flag to go in the air, and the intensity of knowing that one move could make a race, or break it.  To me, this event has so many different emotional swings, that sometimes even the slightest moment can turn into one that sometimes destroys a weekend.

In the end, that’s what happened with a lot of teams.

When the checkered flag waved, there had to be just over a baker’s dozen cars on the track, and of those cars, a good 80-90 percent looked as if they were attacked by Edward Scissorhands.  These cars are extremely tough, that is a certainty, but unlike their Xfinity counterparts, they still run a metal body, so they will dent, crush, and break in a much bigger aspect than others.

That certainly was evident when Jimmie Johnson came down pit road and suddenly saw his afternoon take a drastic change as the left rear corner of his car got peeled away like a lid on a can of soup.  It seemed as though his afternoon was over, especially with how the fuel neck was dangling and the fact no use of replacement parts could be added onto the car under the new policy that’s been in effect for the last two seasons.  Yet in the end, Johnson finished solid in his first outing with a new crew chief and a new sponsor.

Every time the sport has run a plate race in recent years, it’s expected to see cars finish the race looking as if they were in a major accident, and it’s become common.

Plates or not, this kind of incident can still take place.
Plates or not, this kind of incident can still take place.

What is not going to be common from here forward is that the package that teams ran on Sunday will be no more.  For the next 35 races, the cars will look the same with the new rules whether the cars run Daytona, Dover, Charlotte or Watkins Glen.  It also means that after 31 years of use to slow cars down at Daytona and Talladega, along with one weekend at New Hampshire and the experimental setup in later year’s All-Star Race, the plates were coming off.  Sure, a tapered spacer does the same thing as the plate, and the Truck Series has been using this design for many years.  But this is now a completely new way of racing, but the problem is…nothing will change.

What we will have is plate racing, without the plates.  The new tapered spacer for Cup competition will still reduce horsepower, still make cars run in a pack, and still mean one move could take out an entire field.

That’s what Daytona and Talladega are known for.  But, at least this weekend, it is also known for bringing back a memory of a man who was taken from this world too soon.

It’s known that kids are, when the time comes, are to bury their parents.  To have a parent lose a child, no matter the age, is a loss that cannot be worked through.  So imagine the pain that Joe Gibbs was feeling when his son, J.D, was taken from this world before his life really began taking shape.  Yes, he was a major influence on the race team, and many in the garage, beyond the aspect of racing.  His faith certainly was clear when he was in the garage before the race.

Now, Gibbs had to summon every bit of faith he had when in his most dire time, he needed to focus on his job as an owner.

No medicine is greater than seeing the team, and the driver, that was hand-picked to go race for this organization long before he was even eligible for a NASCAR ride.  As a kid, Denny Hamlin got an autograph on an old Redskins hat from Gibbs, saying that one day when older, he would like to race for him.  Fast forward to 2006, J.D. brought him into the Gibbs fold, and started winning.

He got that first Daytona win back in 2016, but this one certainly has a much sweeter taste, because this victory wasn’t for Hamlin.  This one is meant for J.D. and the entire Gibbs family.

The only thing Hamlin lost with the victory is the car itself.  Monday morning, it went into the Daytona 500 Experience, where it will remain until the day of next year’s Daytona 500.  Where the car goes from here is uncertain, although if Hamlin has his way, there will be a new addition onto his home, allowing that car to sit right alongside the other one from a few years ago.

Quite the way to start the 2019 campaign.  Onto Atlanta.

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