Off-Track


Respect clear in showdown between Dale Jr., Barkley

June 08, 2014, Pat DeCola, NASCAR.com

Respect clear in showdown between Dale Jr., Barkley
Go-karting matchup brings together two legends of NASCAR, NBA

MORE: Behind-the-scenes photos of Dale Jr., Barkley battle

MOORESVILLE, N.C. -- In the world of sports, there are leagues, teams, players, officials, fans, everything. The spirit of competitive nature is alive throughout every one of them, sometimes boiling over into bench-clearing brawls, pre-meditated fisticuffs on the drop of the puck, or even, in NASCAR, brush-ups on pit road after too much beating and banging at Martinsville.

Albeit heated at times, every interaction in sports is some form of connection between people; the clash of opposing goals and motives that results in one of the longest-tenured forms of entertainment this world has ever seen.

When two of the world's greatest competitors can face off head-to-head for the sake of not only putting on a thrilling show for the fans but also meeting for the first time and showing each other the utmost respect, it's a beautiful thing.

We're talking, of course, about the legendary go-kart race between Sprint Cup Series star Dale Earnhardt Jr. and NBA Hall of Famer and TNT "Inside the NBA" analyst Charles Barkley.

Barkley mentioned on "Inside" that he wanted to meet Earnhardt Jr., a Charlotte Bobcats Hornets fan, when the Hendrick Motorsports driver appeared on a "Gone Fishin'" graphic the show used when the team was knocked out of the NBA playoffs in April.

Earnhardt was happy to oblige and took to his new love, Twitter, to arrange a meeting between the two at the GoPro Motorplex go-karting facility in Earnhardt's adopted hometown of Mooresville, North Carolina.

So before the Sprint All-Star Race, two of the biggest stars in their respective sports, one in fame, one in height, girth and fame -- Barkley stands 6-foot-6, 252 pounds -- found themselves set to face off in a showdown in advance of the NASCAR on TNT Summer Series that begins with Sunday's Pocono 400 (1 p.m. ET, TNT) at Pocono Raceway.

"Get ready to see two of the best drivers perform at a high level," the 51-year-old Barkley said tongue-in-cheek before admitting, "I'm gonna pull a groin and a hamstring trying to get in and out of this thing."

With both drivers being rookies of the 7/10-mile, 11-turn GoPro Motorplex road course, the pair decided to test run the track in a five-lap exhibition race before a winner-take-all three-lap shootout to crown the champion.

But there was one catch -- in both races, Sir Charles enjoyed the handicap of needing to complete one fewer lap than Earnhardt to pick up the win.

Before they hit the track, however, the two compared stories of their lives on the road, their typical weeks and how an undersized, 14-year-old Earnhardt had big stick-and-ball sport dreams before deciding to stay in motorsports.

"I played soccer in high school," Earnhardt explained. "I was only 4-foot-11 when I was a freshman, so I was too short for basketball. I wanted to play football."

"No, you don't want to play football, nothing good can happen out there," Barkley said.

They even compared how their fire suits fit.

"This is like a new outfit right here. When you get a new outfit, it takes time to break it in. ... This thing is adjusting to my body," Barkley said. "I haven't driven a go-kart in probably 30 years. But you know, it's like riding a bike, once you get it you know how to do it."

In the first race Barkley probably could've kept the training wheels on, getting smoked off the line and receiving a little bump on his right rear quarter-panel while Earnhardt lapped him -- on Lap 3.

"I was just nervous, to be honest with you. I can obviously go fast in the straightaways, but you get nervous going around the corners. My limo driver started yelling at me and telling me I couldn't spin out and he sucks as a driver."

With a full race under his belt and questionable advice from Jerry the Limo Driver in tow, things went much better for the Round Mound of Rebound in the main event. He finished his two laps before Earnhardt's three, despite a little bump drafting and a spinout on Lap 2.

"I think he tricked me," said Earnhardt. "He went real slow the first race and the next race all of a sudden he's winning. I think he was playing possum there. He's like a pool shark."

While it was Barkley who won the race that counted, both drivers had their hands on the trophy in the venue's Victory Lane, holding it high over Earnhardt's head, which equated to around shoulder level for Barkley.

As delightfully silly as the race itself was, it was a moment that clearly meant a lot to both men.

"The thing is, being from Alabama you automatically become a NASCAR fan, so in any sport I never root for teams, I root for people," Barkley said. "All the jocks are really trying hard, so you pick out guys you like and that's why I'm here today. Like I said, you root for personalities. I'm a big fan of (Earnhardt's) and I really want to thank him for taking the time.

"I am so blessed. I've had an amazing life and I get to do really cool things in my life. I'm from a small town in Alabama, everybody knows that. When I told all my friends I was going to come spend time with (Dale), they were so excited."

And what's perhaps most exciting for the rest of us?

This might not be the final meeting.

"We'll settle this another day," Earnhardt said. "I think it's to be continued."