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Shaq vs. Earnhardt Jr.

by Dave Grayson
Thursday, August 5, 2010


Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Shaquille O'Neal talk to reporters
Just mention the name Shaquille O'Neal, aka "Shaq", to literally anyone and they will know who he is. For many years Shaq has been one of the most dynamic and beloved athletes in the National Basketball Association.

Last year Shaq decided to star in a reality show that would take his competitive nature, and sense of humor, to different levels and different athletic venues. That show, "Shaq VS", became an instant hit for the ABC television network. The format featured Shaq challenging other high profile athletes in their natural habitat, such as major league baseball players, while taking a giant step outside of his own athletic environment.

Season two of "Shaq VS" made its debut on ABC last Tuesday night. It garnered a lot of attention because Shaq decided it was time for him to visit the world of NASCAR racing. With a big smile on his face he said "Shaq only likes to mess with the best" and he backed those words up by challenging NASCAR's most popular driver to a stock car race. "Shaq VS Dale Earnhardt Jr" was on.

The two men met at Earnhardt's North Carolina compound to get to know each other and set the terms for the challenge race. Earnhardt said he was both surprised and impressed by Shaq's challenge especially in light of the fact that there is such an overwhelming difference between racing and the other stick and ball sports.

The challenge kicked off with a free throw contest on a basketball court located inside of Earnhardt's garage. Shaq won the contest, 5 to 3, and that also surprised Earnhardt who pointed out a fact that every sports fan in America is well aware of: Shaq is not that proficient while standing behind a NBA free throw line.

NASCAR driver, turned team owner and race track proprietor, Andy Hillenburg prepared identical NASCAR late model Chevrolets for the challenge and also served as Shaq's driving coach. The coach's first problem was placing a 7 foot 1 inch, 335 pound, basketball player inside of a stock car.

Upon seeing his race car for the first time, Shaq made a rather astute observation and said "I don't see no door handle, sir." After he finished laughing, Hillenburg told his new driver that he had two choices: "do that Dukes of Hazard thing and jump through the window or lower himself through a specially placed roof hatch." The window option was clearly out of the question so Shaq very slowly and carefully lowered himself into the driver's seat. The sight of that very large man sitting inside of the race car brought a brand new definition to that old term "packed in there like a sardine."

Next, Hillenburg presented his driver with what he termed "the world's largest driver's suit." That suit was so large a family of four could have went camping in it.

Now it was time for Hillenburg to take his driver on a tour of the Concord Motor Speedway to show him the racing techniques he was going to need to take on Dale Earnhardt Jr. After inching the SUV he was driving towards the backstretch wall, Hillenburg was quickly informed by his driver that he was not that fond of getting too close to concrete walls. But the lessons seemed to pay off. Once Shaq was squeezed inside of his race car again, he went out on the track by himself for the first time and clearly proved that he was quickly getting the hang of driving a race car.

The format of the Earnhardt challenge was comprised of two short heat races of five and ten laps with Shaq being offered some handicap advantages. The first advantage was a one lap lead bonus over his opponent before the green flag fell to start the race. During the course of the ten lap race Earnhardt was required to make two pit stops while changing four tires during each trip to pit road.

With the first race underway, Earnhardt made quick work of getting back on the lead lap and started the process of running down his opponent. The five lap heat turned out to be very close at the end and it appeared that Shaq was actually going to win it before Earnhardt ran him down and passed him coming out of turn four on the final lap.

For the second, ten lap, event Earnhardt had to make sure he maintained a big enough lead over his opponent in order to compensate for the two mandatory pit stops. When the green flag fell, Earnhardt took off and spent three laps opening up a lead before making the 35 MPH trip down pit road to change four tires during the first stop. The J R Motorsports Nationwide Series team jumped over the wall and got to work. Unfortunately it was a slow stop, 20.21 seconds, and their driver returned to the track a little over a half lap behind Shaq. Earnhardt ran three more laps, passed Shaq and again opened up a lead before returning to pit road for the second stop. Once again, there was another rather slow stop, 20.12 seconds, and Earnhardt had to play chase again. Once again it looked like Shaq might be the first to see the checkers. But, once again, Earnhardt managed to run him down in the final turns of the final lap to take the win.

Despite the discomfort of his large frame being confined in a tiny area, Shaq was all smiles after the race and seemed to be really enjoying himself. He gave a ringing endorsement to all NASCAR drivers when he said "I've heard some people say that these guys really aren't athletes. Anybody who tries to tell me they aren't athletes can kiss my ass."

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