Thomas Davis drives pace car and rides with Dale Earnhardt Jr.
After stepping into a custom fire suit, pulling on his helmet and climbing awkwardly into Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s No. 88 Chevrolet, there was only one thing left for Carolina Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis to do before riding shotgun next to one of NASCAR’s biggest stars at 180 mph.
Get out his cell phone camera.
Earnhardt took the NFL’s reigning Man of the Year for a five-lap spin around the 1.5-mile track at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Tuesday afternoon at what appeared to be at or close to full speed.
Davis captured the ride-along on his cell phone and later posted the pictures and video on social media.
If the speed or the 24-degree banked turns unnerved Davis, he had a funny way of showing it.
“I figured he was going to be hard to scare,” Earnhardt said. “He was filming the whole thing with his phone like we were going down the interstate.”
Davis was at the track Tuesday to get certified to drive the pace car before Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600. Davis said he got up to 110 mph in the Toyota pace car but wasn’t sure how fast Earnhardt cranked up his No. 88 car.
“I was looking for the speedometer. I couldn’t find it,” Davis said. “It was an amazing feeling, just to be out there in that car and going around the track at the speed that we were. I was trying to look over at some of the signs and it was like a blur.”
The ride-along was orchestrated by officials from the track and Nationwide, which sponsors Earnhardt as well as the NFL’s Man of the Year Award.
Davis wore a fire suit nearly identical to Earnhardt’s blue Nationwide suit. But Davis’ was customized with his name emblazoned across the back, along with two patches for his Defending Dreams Foundation.
He and Earnhardt exchanged helmets after Davis checked another item off his bucket list. Davis, the first NFL player to return from three ACL surgeries, said a big goal remains.
“Obviously, this is one of the things that’s been crossed off,” he said. “But the biggest thing is a Super Bowl ring. It gets no bigger than that. It’s the ultimate team award, and we’re shooting for it this year.”
Davis said again he had no issue with the Panthers drafting a linebacker in the first round. When Davis announced the Panthers’ selection of University of Washington outside linebacker Shaq Thompson during the first night of the draft in Chicago, many observers pointed out that he might have been introducing his eventual successor.
Davis doesn’t disagree.
“When you think about, you’ve got a guy who’s going into his 11th year and you have an opportunity to put a guy on your team right now that can eventually replace him, that’s as athletic if not even more athletic, why wouldn’t you take advantage of the opportunity?”
Thompson also was a running back at Washington, a position Davis played throughout high school in south Georgia.
Earnhardt said he loved playing sandlot football growing up. But standing 4-foot-10 as a high school freshman, he stuck to racing rather than try to make Mooresville’s football team.
“I was just too small to be out there playing,” he said. “So I’d go to games, cheer them on.”
Earnhardt is a devoted Washington fan who has been a guest at the team’s training camp in Virginia. He had no desire to strap the pads on.
“I don’t need to be out there trying to play,” Earnhardt said. “I want them to work. I want them to try to do what they’re supposed to do. I don’t want to be part of the circus.”
Earnhardt was responsible for getting Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III behind the wheel of the pace car at last year’s Richmond race. It was mentioned to Davis that RG3 appeared to drive more cautiously during his practice session than Davis did Tuesday.
“See,” Davis said smiling, “that’s the difference between linebackers and quarterbacks.”
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