The linebacker out of Kentucky grew up a racing fan and idolized Johnson, the seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion who last year transitioned to open-wheel racing.
That April evening, Johnson’s phone blew up with text messages from friends who saw the graphic and took a screenshot to send him. Davis’s phone soon blew up too, with Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and NASCAR all tweeting at Davis, wishing him luck in Washington and vowing to get him to a race.
“At first I didn’t think it was real until I had actually clicked it, because I don’t really pay attention to social media as much,” Davis told The Post in a phone interview. “But when I finally got on there and saw that him and Dale Jr. and NASCAR were actually tweeting me, I was just like, ‘Wow. What the heck?’”
Last weekend, shortly after wrapping his first NFL minicamp, Davis’s other dream came true. He not only met Johnson, but spent a day alongside him and the Chip Ganassi Racing team at the Detroit Grand Prix. It was the first IndyCar race Davis had attended, and was arranged behind the scenes while he participated in offseason workouts and practices back in Ashburn, Va.
During his nine seasons in Carolina, Washington head coach Ron Rivera became close with Johnson, who was then racing for Rick Hendrick Motorsports. In 2019, Rivera was invited to give a motivational speech to the Hendrick team, and told them what he often tells his players: “You have to be where your feet are.”
“It’s funny because when I first started watching NASCAR, I became a Jeff Gordon fan, but then when Jimmie started winning and I found out Jimmie was from California, I started following both,” Rivera said over the phone. “When I found out they’re on the same race team, I thought, ‘Oh, that’s freaking cool.’”
After the draft, Johnson and Rivera connected again, about Davis.
“I sent him a text that said, ‘One of your inbound players is a fan. Hope to get you guys to a race,’” Johnson recalled in a phone conversation. “We just started a little dialogue there, and he expanded on how great of an individual Jamin is and how he truly is a fan and it would be neat if we could get him to a race.
“It was evident we were going to hit it off well and we were going to figure out how to make it work in Detroit before his schedule got too busy.”
Davis, one of the newest members of the Washington Football Team, also became the newest member of Chip Ganassi Racing last weekend. He received a crew shirt, listened to qualifying over the headset, was shown around the transporters, rode in a two-seat IndyCar, went almost everywhere the crew went and, in between, found time to get to know his idol.
“It was just cool to meet someone I grew up watching and being able to sit and tell him about races that he probably forgot about that I sat and watched growing up,” Davis said. “He was everything I expected. Pretty down-to-earth guy, very laid back.”
Johnson finished his two races at Belle Isle Raceway a lap down in 21st among 25 cars. But he described his foray into open-wheel racing as a steady progression “with so many improvements” and “many lessons learned. In Detroit, he felt he took another significant step.
“I’m a bit surprised at myself in a sense that I’ve picked one of the toughest challenges I’ve ever looked at in my professional career,” he said. “It is much like starting my NASCAR career. So if you had asked me two years ago if I’d be willing to take something on like this, it just wasn’t in my head space, it wasn’t in the cards. But my desire to drive one of these cars really steered this opportunity, and now that I’m in it, I’m tackling it like I did my NASCAR start and treating it very much the same.”
Next up for Johnson is the REV Group Grand Prix at Road America in Wisconsin.
The next race for Davis could be the 2022 Indianapolis 500, another event he hopes to someday cross off his to-do list. First up, though, is his rookie NFL season, the biggest challenge of his young career.
While in Detroit, Davis was reminded of some sage advice that has traveled from Carolina to the DMV and now the Midwest.
“Jimmie was talking to me about how you have to separate football from everything going on in life and find your place away from everything and just be able to stay grounded,” Davis said. “It was kind of like how Coach Rivera always says: ‘Be where your feet are.’”