Best-case scenario

The 2016 National League preview can be found here.

Some years ago, the American and National Leagues started blurring together. You probably know the history. The American League was founded more than 100 years ago as a counterexample to the rough-and-tumble National League. In the AL, swearing was banned, arguing with the umpire was strongly discouraged and no salary ceiling was placed on players. And for years, the American League was viewed by many as the more entertaining league.

Then, in the late 1940s and 1950s, the National League proved to be much more open to signing black players. While many American League teams held out, the National League became the far-more-exciting league with the addition of players like Willie Mays and Hank Aaron and Roberto Clemente and Frank Robinson and Bob Gibson and Willie McCovey. You might remember that between 1963 and 1981, the NL won all but one All-Star Game. The league just had better players overall.

In 1973, the American League broke away by adding the designated hitter — this remains the defining divider between the two leagues.

But, as of late, the DH has proved to be just about the ONLY divider. There is no league pride now. Players easily travel back and forth between the AL and NL. Interleague play has taken away much of the mystery that used to tantalize baseball fans (what would happen if Bob Gibson faced Reggie Jackson?). The All-Star Game has become so insignificant in everybody’s minds that baseball now attaches World Series home-field advantage to it. There has been more and more talk of breaking down the last AL and NL walls and just making it one big superleague.

Well, this year there’s a big difference between the AL and NL.

This year, every single American League team is in it to win it. All fifteen teams come into the season with at least moderate hopes of winning their division. Some of those hopes are, as British announcers like to say about wild soccer shots from 40 yards away, “ambitious.” Some might even be “delusional.” But, as one general manager says, you wouldn’t be too surprised if any team in the American League wins 90 games this year. And you wouldn’t be too surprised if any team in the American League loses 90 games this year.

This isn’t true in the National League. A quick rundown suggests that the five worst teams — maybe the six worst — all play in the National League. Six or seven or possibly even eight teams in the league are in rebuild mode, so much so that people inside the game do believe that tanking could become a major problem. There are probably eight teams playing for five playoff spots.

And so, as far as overriding predictions go, you can predict that the teams with the best records will all be in the National League. Last year, you will recall, the National League Central was the first division ever to have three teams win 97-plus games. Meanwhile, no team in the entire American League won 97. There will be a lot of free victories in the NL this year; a 110-victory team could happen.

Meanwhile in the American League, each division should be a dogfight, every team will be playing as a contender at least until reality exceeds hope. Don’t be surprised if an 85-win team makes the playoffs.

* * *

Back when I was columnist for The Kansas City Star, I used to write a column every year predicting that the Kansas City Royals would win the American League Central. This column was wrong every single year — the Royals did not become any good until I was long gone — but it was fun to think up best-case scenarios, even for lousy teams.

Why even HAVE an Opening Day if you can’t hope?

So here you go, team-by-team best-case scenarios. I start in the American League because, obviously, it is a lot easier to come up with these best-case scenarios. I’m already dreading coming up with some reasons to believe for a few National League teams.

* * *

American League East

Favorite: Toronto, I guess, though it could be anybody.

Contenders: All five teams could win 90 games or lose 90.

1. Toronto will win the division because …

… power is back in baseball, baby, and the Blue Jays mash baseballs. You probably heard that last year, in August and September, home run numbers skyrocketed. The good people at FiveThirtyEight looked into it without really figuring out what happened. It could have been the weather. In any case, no team took better advantage of that power surge than the Blue Jays.

Look: On July 28, the Blue Jays were at 50-51 and eight games back in the division. They hit 131 homers in 101 games, which is a lot, and averaged 5.25 runs per game, which is also a lot. Their pitching improved considerably with the acquisition of David Price, and that was the general narrative — the Blue Jays finally got enough pitching and so they started winning. The narrative is, in part, true.

But in addition to that, let’s not forget that Blue Jays started CRUSHING baseballs The Blue Jays averaged six runs per game over the last two months and hit an astounding 1.7 homers per game over that span. Edwin Encarnacion hit 20 homers the last two months, Jose Bautista mashed 19 homers, Josh Donaldson hit 16. Throw in a healthy Troy Tulowitzki (this is a best-case scenario story, remember) and this is a lineup that could hit 250 homers this year.

The starting pitching has some holes, no question — not a lot of strikeouts in that rotation, and they couldn’t keep Price — but I think the bullpen will be better than many expect with the acquisition of Drew Storen, who the Nationals mishandled in near-criminal fashion. The pitching will be good enough, and the Blue Jays will batter their way to the division title.

[nbcsports_mpx url=]

2. Boston will win the division because …

… of the kids and the bullpen.

The Red Sox are weird. Think of the players they have drafted or signed over the last 15 or so years. A glimmer: Kevin Youkilis, Dustin Pedroia; Jacoby Ellsbury; Josh Reddick; Brandon Belt; Anthony Rizzo … and you can add the core young players on this year’s team, which includes the fantastic Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, Blake Swihart, Rusney Castillo and Jackie Bradley, Jr.

With scouting and development that good, why do the Red Sox keep insisting on spending ginormous piles of cash on panda bears and Hanley monsters and so on?

There seem to be two reasons:

1. The Red Sox have not been nearly as good at developing pitching as they have every day players. Boston was 14th in runs allowed last year, 11th the year before that and sixth in 2013 when they won the World Series. The only starter on this year’s team drafted and developed by Boston is Clay Buchhholz, and he has had a quirky, injury-plagued career. When you aren’t developing pitching, you will have trouble.

2. You may have heard: The Red Sox sort of expect to win every year. Theo Epstein, when he was GM,  famously talked about having a bridge year to allow the kids a chance to mature. That just about set off a riot. Boston has no stinkin’ bridge years. Next thing you know, Theo’s Sox were throwing money in all directions in the hopes it would hit a Carl Crawford or something. Ben Cherington was GM when the Sox won the World Series, and he helped build the best farm system in baseball … and he was canned for Dave Dombrowski after two down years.

So, that upward pressure always blows in Boston … and this year the Sox brought in David Price to anchor the rotation. That will help. But the Red Sox will win this year because of those young players. Betts and Boegarts are both superstars in the making, and several others will play big roles. Also, the Red Sox could have a killer bullpen with the acquisition of super-closer Craig Kimbrel and Carson Smith, who throws one wicked slider. Please read that last part in a thick Boston accent.

3. The New York Yankees will win because …

… the old guys will have have one more ride together, and are you even kidding me with that bullpen?

I made a promise to my PosCast partner and Yankee-hater Michael Schur that I would say only good things about the New York Yankees this year. Last year I said that the Yankees were done, and those words filtered into the atmosphere and rained down as a karma whirlwind that turned Alex Rodriguez young and created Yankee heroes on a nightly basis.

So enough of that. The Yankees win the division because this season turns into one of those old-Hollywood buddy movies where Clint Eastwood and Tommy Lee Jones and James Garner all get together to do some sort of space rescue. Thirty-five-year-old C.C. Sabathia will have a renaissance year as will soon-to-be-36-year-old Mark Teixeira and and soon-to-be-39-year-old Carlos Beltran. And 40-year-old A-Rod will lead the way.

Plus: That bullpen. Holy cow, that bullpen. I’m of the belief that the Kansas City Royals set off a revolution by creating inning-by-inning closers for the seventh, eighth and ninth innings. The Yankees are like a 2.0 version of that with the unhittable Andrew Miller, the more unhittable Deilin Betances and the 294-mph-throwing Aroldis Chapman after he serves his suspension. Good night.

4. Tampa Bay will win because …

… they have the best starting pitching in the division.

You will ask: How will they find a way to score enough runs?

Well, um, Evan Longoria and, um, Evan Longoria. Corey Dickerson came over in a trade, and he has some power; he hit 34 homers the last two years in about 660 at-bats. Steven Souza has long had massive power potential. They will find a way — and that rotation is superb. Chris Archer and Jake Odorizzi are both Cy Young Award candidates.

Also, Kevin Kiermaier plays symphonic defense in center field. That may seem off-topic, but I don’t care, it has to be said: The guy catches everything out there. He had a .298 on-base percentage last year and STILL got MVP votes and ABSOLUTELY deserved them. If he finds a way to become even a good offensive player, he could win an MVP award.

5. Baltimore will win because …

… all their weird plans will work! Mark Trumbo will become a 30-double, 30-homer guy again. Pedro Alvarez will regain the form that saw him lead the National League in homers three years ago.Yovani Gallardo will start striking out people again, like he did four years ago, and be a Cy Young contender.

All that will happen, along with Chris Davis again hitting 50 or so homers, Matt Wieters staying healthy for the first time since 2013, Adam Jones regaining his form of two or three years ago. And the Orioles bullpen will repeat its superb 2015.

Also, Manny Machado.

This might sound sarcastic — well, not the Manny Machado part but the rest of it — but I’m serious: Every year, things just work out for one team. It was the Cubs last year. Everything went the Cubs’ way, players developed faster than expected, the bullpen kept getting outs, the pitching dominated when the lineup was down and the lineup dominated when the pitching faded. It happens, and this year it happens for the Orioles.

And Buck Showalter will win manager of the year … and he will deserve it.

* * *

American League Central

Favorite: Kansas City, no matter what the projection systems say.

Contenders: Everybody has an outside shot, but Cleveland and Detroit have to feel especially frisky about their chances.

1. Kansas City will win because …

… of course they will. The Royals always win. This is the new world order, my friend.

The Royals will win despite whatever skepticism is still out there for the same reasons they won the World Series last year and the American League pennant two years ago. They will still play some of the best defense in baseball, especially in the outfield. They will still get fantastic bullpen work, especially out of the cyborg Wade Davis.

That is to say: They will still play some of the best defense in baseball, especially in the outfield. They will still get fantastic bullpen work especially out of the cyborg Wade Davis. They will still get ENOUGH decent starting pitching out of Edinson Volquez, Yordano Ventura and newly acquired Ian Kennedy. Perhaps the most stunning thing about the Royals’ run the last two years is that they have won without even a single four-WAR season out of a starter. They’ll do that again.

They will still get enough runs out of the same scrappy, high-energy, contact-driven offense. Last year, they were third in doubles, fourth in triples, sixth in runs behind the forceful play of Lorenzo Cain and Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas and Alex Gordon and the like. They’re all back, ready for a reprise.

The Royals have created a new formula for winning. It might not make sense to everybody, but it works.

More: Posnanski on Royals’ secret to success | Has Ventura lost White Sox clubhouse? | MLB’s fastball obsession

2. Cleveland will win because …

… oh, man, look at that rotation. Just look at it.

Remember what the Mets did last year? Yeah, the Indians are doing that this year.

The Mets won with four staggering arms. This Cleveland rotation has staggering arms. Corey Kluber has 514 Ks in 457 innings the last two years. Danny Salazaar closes in on 100 with his fastball; Carlos Carrasco throws just about as hard, and Cody Anderson seems to have the Bugs Bunny changeup. Anderson so wowed the Indians this spring that they moved the quirky Trevor Bauer out to the ‘pen, where he might throw 137 mph.

The Indians have to find a way to score runs, but there are some weapons here. Jason Kipnis has been a superb offensive player two of the last three years.  Michael Brantley is one of the league’s most underrated playerers, Francisco Lindor as a rookie last year looked an awful lot like a young Derek Jeter in just 99 games — he’s special. They could use a resurgence from Carlos Santana and newly acquired Mike Napoli.

But with that rotation, it won’t matter. They will blow people away with their arms. And they’ll score enough.

3. Detroit will win because …

… the top five or six in that lineup is still crazy good, and Justin Verlander is ba-a-a-ck.

Five years ago, Verlander was Superman. He was the first starting pitcher in almost 25 years to sweep the Cy Young and MVP awards. It was no fluke; in 2012, he was almost exactly as good, though some of that was cloaked by his win-loss record. People still look at that.

Then, he took a significant step down. He was still GOOD in 2013, but not great. And then, in 2014, voila, he was kind of terrible. There was no real warning for that. He gave up the most earned runs in the league in 2014. He struck out less than seven per nine innings for the first time since he was a semi-clueless rookie. His fastball lost velocity. He wouldn’t admit it, but he was almost certainly pitching hurt.

Last year, he began the season on the DL and when he returned, well, ugh, straight fastballs. Straight curveballs. Hitters teed off. And this went on until late July when, suddenly, he had his first 10-strikeout game in a year and a half. The “Is Verlander Back” storyline began. And for the rest of year he looked remarkably like the old Verlander, pitching 91 innings, striking out 88 with a 2.36 ERA and holding the league to a .204 batting average and just five home runs.

With that Verlander back and the addition of Jordan Zimmermann — who Washington could not have treated worse — and with a lineup that features the still-fierce Miguel Cabrera along with Victor and J.D. Martinez and the newly acquired Justin Upton, the Tigers win this thing.

4. Minnesota will win because …

… the kids will emerge. We’ve been waiting for a while now for Byron Buxton to become Willie Mickey or Joe Hobbs. This is the year. Miguel Sano has freakish power. This is the year he blasts 35 home runs. Jose Berrios led the minor leagues in strikeouts with a 95-mph fastball and a slam-on-the-brakes changeup. This is the year he emerges in the big leagues.

The Twins somehow won 83 games last year, even with a negative run differential, and you could definitely begin to see the beginning of that youth movement that has been promised for a few years now.

Yes, it’s true, the Twins have some fundamental flaws. For instance, the pitching staff was dead last in the league in strikeouts for the third straight year (they were second-last four years ago).

Then, by the numbers (Dewan’s Teams Runs Saved is my number of choice), they were a dreadful defensive team for the third straight year. If you don’t strike ’em out and, you don’t catch the ball, it’s gonna be awfully hard to keep ’em from crossing the plate.

But happy thoughts: This is the year for Buxton to bust out and become a star. And all the good things follow.

5. Chicago will win because …

… there won’t be any kids hanging around the clubhouse.

No, sorry, we’re staying positive. The White Sox will win because they have perhaps the best pitcher in the American League in Chris Sale. That’s the starting point for good things. Jose Quintana and Carlos Rodon could make this a terrific rotation. The White Sox should bang a few home runs with Jose Abreu and newly acquired Todd Frazier in the middle of the lineup. This will work.

The White Sox were a trendy pick last year coming off their active offseason, and that didn’t work. So they had another active offseason. That’s one thing you have to love about the White Sox — they will just DO things. True, those things might include bringing in a 37-year-old Jimmy Rollins, along with a bunch of guys trying to rebuild a career like Mat Latos and Austin Jackson and Alex Avila.

But, there is a “Don’t just stand there, DO something” energy in Chicago that you have to admire. In 2005, it all just came together magically. The magic is back this year.

* * *

[nbcsports_mpx url=]

American League West

Favorite: Houston with Texas a close second choice.

Contenders: I suspect the other three teams believe they have a shot, but with a bad start any of the three could pack it in.

1. Houston will win because …

… have you seen this team? The Astros are ridiculously good. They might have the league MVP this year (Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa and George Springer are ALL viable candidates). They have defending Cy Young winner Dallas Kuechel, and Lance McCullers at age 21 showed remarkable stuff. And the Astros have a farm system LOADED with top-level prospects. This team is preposterously loaded now.

The Astros seemed to get here by following a pattern that several teams — particularly in the National League — are now following: Spend no money on the big league club; lose big; cash revenue checks; take advantage of all the safety-net programs that baseball offers the downtrodden such as high draft picks. This Astros collapsed enthusiastically. They lost 106, 107 and 111 games from 2011-13, and no team had lost that many games in three consecutive seasons since the expansion Mets.

There is unquestionably resentment around baseball about the Astros tanking, a resentment that I think comes from the gap in people’s feelings about the LETTER and SPIRIT of rules. The Astros certainly followed the letter of the laws; nobody argues that. They cynically but smartly built their way up.

People who admire what the Astros have done feel like they followed the spirit of the rules too — they saw that this was the one way to turn around the franchise, and they did it effectively. “You can’t blame them,” one executive told me. “They took advantage of the rules.”

People who disapprove of what the Astros have done believe they did not follow the spirit of the rules because they did not fulfill their basic task of fielding a competitive team. As a different executive said, “You have to try at least. It’s bad for the game. They just about killed baseball in Houston.”

Either way, the Astros are going to win the division this year.

2. Texas will win because …

… the Rangers have one hot-hitting team, top to bottom in the lineup, and, with Cole Hamels, they now have a legitimate ace.

Ponder for a moment the wonder of Shin-Soo Choo. He is the greatest everyday Major League baseball player ever from South Korea. That’s not especially close at the moment — Choo has about 30 career WAR, putting him in the class with guys like Don Baylor and Bobby Bonilla and Tim McCarver. The next-highest South Korean player on the list is Jung Ho Kang, who earned four WAR as a rookie last year for Pittsburgh.

Imagine being the greatest at something in your country’s history. Everybody who plays Major League Baseball is the pride of a community somewhere, but Choo is the pride of a nation of 50 million people. And he’s such a fun player to watch.

What does any of this have to do with the Rangers winning the division? Nothing, but hey they won it last year so you know exactly why they will win it this year.

3. Seattle will win because …

… it all has to work sometime.

The Mariners have been poking and prodding and trying to figure out any way they can to win for their long-suffering fans and their great ace Felix Hernandez. It is staggering how good King Felix has been for the last 10 or so years. And it is even more staggering to see how little the Mariners have done with his genius.

The Mariners owe this man some glory … and they’ve tried to make something good happen in their own halting fashion. They spent huge money for Robinson Cano and only slightly less huge money for Nelson Cruz. They have fired managers, switched up plans, tried to build around offense, tried to build around defense, tried to stack their bullpen.

Well, this is the year that the plan will work. They completely re-tooled the bullpen, brought in starter Wade Miley, added a few offensive pieces including the ever-solid Adam Lind. And with Cano and Cruz primed for big seasons, the Mariners win the division.

4. Oakland will win because …

… Moneyball. Whatever that means in 2016.

Moneyball has come to represent a specific philosophy — put aging catchers at first base, draft fat players, throw chairs through walls, never bunt and so on — but it always has MEANT something elusive: Find inefficiencies in the marketplace.

The trouble with marketplace inefficiences is that, like rabbits, they move really fast, and they hide under bushes, and they eat out of your garden at night. For a time, on-base percentage was the grand market inefficiency, something general managers didn’t care too much about. But that isn’t true now. For a time, college pitchers were a market inefficiency — the scouts wanted to draft rawer high school kids. But that changed.

It’s not entirely clear what the market inefficiency is now — but of course, that should be obvious. If you can SEE it, well, it wouldn’t be a market inefficiency. So when I say that it’s not entirely clear what the A’s are chasing right now, you can see that as a great compliment.

The A’s have one of the best pitchers in baseball in Sonny Gray. They have other pieces to make the pitching staff formidable. They have a few good players like Stephen Vogt and Josh Reddick. They have …

… yeah, it will take some magic. But that’s the Moneyball way, right? It works in the movies.

5. The Los Angeles Angels will win because …

… Mike Trout.

You know that sales trick where you always push the customer’s attention back to the one good thing about the product your selling? They ask about the mileage on the car, and you point out the sun roof. They ask about the data plan, you point out how good the camera is.

So go ahead: Ask me any quesiton you want about the Angels.

You ask: How are they going to score any runs when their double play combination at the moment is Johnny Giavotella and Andrelton Simmons?

My answer is simple: Mike Trout.

You say Albert Pujols is now 36 years old and has finally conceded that he’s a DH. Well, Mike Trout to you too. Their rotation is looking a bit thin after Garrett Richards — and that’s even if Jered Weaver can somehow rediscover something. Yes, uh huh, Mike Trout, Mike Trout, Mike Trout.

The Angels won 85 games last year despite being outscored by 14 runs, despite finishing 12th in runs scored and not having a single pitcher with a two WAR. How do you turn that into a winner? Mike Trout, of course.

The Angels look absurdly shaky and old and … did I tell you how good Mike Trout is? Here are your all-time WAR leaders through age 23:

1. Mike Trout, 37.9

2. Ty Cobb, 36.0

3. Ted Williams, 34.2

4. Mel Ott, 31.4

5. Ken Griffey, 30.1

They are followed by guys named Mantle, A-Rod and Kaline.

Put it another way: Two more seasons at this pace and Trout will already have put up a viable Hall of Fame career — THE WHOLE CAREER — and he will be coming his age-25 season.

You say Mike Trout ain’t enough. Well, I’ll tell you this, Trout is, as my friend Jeff Garlin likes to say, a big bowl of awesome sauce. And yes, I did name drop Jeff Garlin’s name to distract you from the fact that I haven’t given you a viable way for the Angels to win the division. That’s another sales technique. Also: Mike Trout.

Scroll Down For:

    Peter King goes 1-on-1 with Cowboys’ Jason Witten

    Year: 2017
    Runtime: 19:25
    Originally aired on: NBC

    Dallas Cowboys tight end Jason Witten has done it all during his 15-year NFL career. The two-time All-Pro and seven-time Pro Bowler is the Cowboys’ all-time leader in both receptions and receiving yards and is third in franchise history in touchdowns. The future Hall of Famer let Peter King of The MMQB and Football Night in America behind the scenes for a look into Witten’s recovery process. The end result is an incredibly rare shot of what it takes for an NFL player to take his body from gameday to gameday and perform at their absolute best week after week.

    Off Script: Jeremy Roenick opens up on career, family

    Jeremy Roenick was as outspoken as he was talented during his 20-year NHL career.

    Now 47 years old and almost a decade out of the league, the NHL on NBC analyst opens up to Kathryn Tappen about trouble with coaches, life after getting traded, close family ties and much more in the debut episode of “Off Script.”

    Once more, with feeling

    NEW YORK — Again and again, over and over, they ask him how he FEELS. Well, this is the question to ask, isn’t it? The bus crawls through New York traffic and takes Jimmie Johnson from office building to office building. People wait inside. Kelly Live waits. Charlie Rose waits. USA Today … Mad Dog Radio … NFL Radio … TMZ. They wait for him on top of the Empire State Building. They wait for him outside the Time Life Building.

    How does it FEEL, Jimmie?

    How does it FEEL to come from nowhere to win your seventh NASCAR Sprint Cup championship, Jimmie? How does it FEEL to tie the two enduring legends of your sport, “The King,” Richard Petty and “The Intimidator,” Dale Earnhardt? How does it FEEL to be the best at what you do, to be inside a race car, rushing at the speed of chaos with 39 maniacs around you barely holding on? No, really, break it down for our audience, how does it feel to be you, Jimmie Johnson, championship race-car driver, part-time triathlete, millionaire philanthropist like Bruce Wayne or Tony Stark, loving husband, adoring father, everybody’s best friend and somehow, still, the nicest guy?

    How does it FEEL, Jimmie?

    “Insane,” he says. “It feels insane.”

    “Awesome,” he says. “It feels awesome.”

    “Wonderful,” he says.

    “Surreal,” he says.

    “Incredible,” he says.

    “I don’t know that I have the words,” he says.

    We’ve known each other a long time, Jimmie and I. We’ve talked about a lot of things through the years, about family and sharks, about food and dreams, faith and football, about kids and ice cream and how hard it is to not care when people boo.

    “Let me ask you something,” I say as the day crawls on, and he has been asked the question two or three dozen times, and his eyes begin to close because he’s worn out. “All these people keep asking you how you feel.”

    “Yeah,” he says. “Part of the job.”

    “I know,” I tell him. “But if you keep talking about how it feels, how do you keep anything for yourself?”

    He smiles at that and shrugs and looks out the window of the bus.

    * * *

    There is a giant hill near the small house where Johnson grew up. People tend to know he grew up around San Diego and so they might think about the sun and the beach, colorful sailboats and yachts. He gives off the impression of royalty. But that’s not the San Diego where he grew up. His town was called El Cajon. There are no yachts in El Cajon. His father operated heavy machinery. His mother drove a school bus. They made do. Jimmie would escape down that hill on his bicycle.

    WATCH: NASCAR Sprint Cup Awards on Dec. 2 (7 p.m. ET on NBCSN,, the NBC Sports app)

    That hill — El Cajon mountain — is a road that seems to go straight down. Even in a car, it is a bit daunting. And for the young Jimmie Johnson it held all the secrets worth knowing. He would rush too fast down that hill, then faster, then faster still, until his parents would tell him to chill, and his friends would nervously call him crazy. Then he went faster again. At that speed, he found that he could feel everything. Fear. Breathlessness. Joy. Hope. Love. Pain. Oh, sure, there was always some pain. There was always another crash. Jimmie Johnson was the kid who showed up for just about every class photo wearing a cast or leaning on crutches.

    Well, he couldn’t help it. He needed that speed. He needed to race. There was something about being on the edge — barely in control and barely out of control — that called to him. He would do ANYTHING for that feeling because being on that edge was the thing that made him feel most alive. As the years went on, he realized that to get that edge, he needed to make connections. So he made connections. He realized that to get to that edge he needed to know people. So he met people — the Herzogs, the Chevy people, Jeff Gordon, Rick Hendrick, the people who could help him get where he so needed to go.

    He is just one of those people who cannot leave his fears alone. He needed to explore the fears, dance around them, poke at them if he can. It’s still true. Even after he made his name as a race-car driver and could do more or less anything he wanted, he still spent a vacation diving into the water so he could be thisclose to sharks. Why would a sane person do that?

    “Because I’m absolutely terrified of sharks,” he says, as if that explains it.

    * * *

    Richard Petty. Dale Earnhardt. Jimmie Johnson. It does boggle Johnson’s mind that he’s now in that company, officially and inarguably, one of NASCAR’s holy trinity to win seven championships. People can argue who is, in fact, the greatest of all time — and there will be those who believe it isn’t ANY of the three but instead is an Allison or a Gordon or a Richmond or someone like that. Johnson doesn’t care. He’s so happy to be in the discussion.

    Johnson never did race against Petty or Earnhardt, though he raced plenty against their sons. He did meet the legends. Well, he has met Richard Petty quite a few times, but he doesn’t really have any good stories about it. “What can you say about him that hasn’t been said a million times?” Johnson says. “He’s the King. He treats everyone with respect. He’s our greatest champion. He’s always been very nice to me, but he’s nice to everyone, you know? I don’t really know that I have more to add than that.”

    Johnson does have good stories, though, about the two times he met Dale Earnhardt.

    As part of Johnson’s effort to know people, he became friends with Ron Hornaday Jr., a four-time World Truck Series Champion, and a friend of Earnhardt’s. And one day, Hornaday sees Johnson and says, “Hey, you want to meet Earnhardt?” And of course Johnson says yes because Earnhardt was a legend by then. “People my age,” he says, “there was no one on earth cooler than Dale Earnhardt.”

    They walk in together, and Hornaday introduces Johnson. Earnhardt sizes up the kid; Johnson was 21 years old then. And then Earnhadt reaches for a little box and gives it to Johnson. “Here,” he says with no warning or explanation. Inside is a little pocket knife with Dale Earnhardt’s name on it. Johnson is overwhelmed.

    “OK,” Earnhardt says. “So what did you get me?”

    Johnson kind of stumbles around. “Um,” he says, “I didn’t know …”

    Earnhardt growls, “You know it’s YEARS of bad luck if you give somebody a knife and then don’t get a gift in return.”

    [nbcsports_mpx url=]

    Johnson begins to turn red, “I mean …”

    Earnhardt goes on: “I don’t need your bad luck. I still haven’t won Daytona. I give you a knife and you don’t have anything for me, and now you’re telling me I have to walk around with your bad luck …”

    Johnson panics. He rushes outside and, using all the ingenuity he could muster up, gets a penny. He goes in and gives it to Earnhardt saying, “It’s a heads-up penny for good luck.”

    Earnhardt doesn’t say a word.

    “You know,” Johnson says now, almost 20 years later, “I wonder if he was messing with me.”

    * * *

    Did you see Johnson going crazy?  In the minutes after Johnson won that race at Homestead on Nov. 20, the one that clinched the seventh championship, he lost his mind. He danced. He jumped around. He hugged everyone and everything in his path. He screamed — screamed so loud and with such force that even days later he did not have his voice back.  He had won six championships before this one, and he celebrated those heartily, too. But this was different. This was unchained. This was Spinal Tap’s eleven.

    “I don’t even know who that guy was,” Johnson says as he looks at footage of himself going bananas.

    Shock, of course, had something to do with it. Johnson went into Sunday’s race needing to finish ahead of three drivers — Carl Edwards, Joey Logano and Kyle Busch — to win the seventh championship. And all race long, he could not beat any of the three. They all had better cars. They all had better track position. Johnson’s crew chief, Chad Knaus, had tinkered and gambled and even tried making a few rather desperate changes, but none of it mattered. Johnson just didn’t have enough car. Those three guys pulled away, and Johnson was left sitting in his car thinking of ways to be gracious when the inevitable loss happened. “I knew I wasn’t going to win,” he says. “I accepted it.”

    (All the while, his wife, Chandra, was a mess. Chandra is famous around the track for her relatively serene approach to watching Jimmie race. On Sunday, she admitted, she was in the fetal position).

    And then in the final 10 laps of the race, suddenly, a whole series of wacky things happened. Carl Edwards was in command of the championship when the caution flag came out. Poor Carl Edwards. He’s had a glorious NASCAR career, winning 28 races and more than $80 million in prize money, but something has always blocked him from being THE GUY. There was the time he tied Tony Stewart and lost the tiebreaker. There was the year he won nine races, including the last one, but fell short on points. And then there was this one, the time when he had the championship in his hand but a caution flag came out with 10 laps to go and it all went to hell.

    Edwards restarted on the front row, and he had Joey Logano behind him. Jimmie Johnson was behind Logano. And for the first time all day, Johnson thought: “Well, hey, maybe there’s a chance.”

    Logano, as is his style, made a bold move inside to try and beat Edwards on the restart — nobody in NASCAR restarts quite as aggressively and forcefully as Logano. He went so far inside that his car rolled over the painted area near the interior wall. And it was a winning move — his move would trap Edwards between cars, and there’s no escaping that spot. Edwards knew it, knew his race was over if he let Logano by, and so, in a desperate effort to block Logano, he swerved left. “I was a bit optimistic,” Edwards said ruefully afterward. He bumped Logano, and then lost control, leading to a fiery wreck that ended Edwards’ hopes and shut the race down for 30 minutes.

    “As soon as I got by that wreck,” Johnson said, “I thought, ‘Wait a minute. What’s happening here? I might actually win this.'”

    Well, that was certainly the thought in the Johnson camp, where Knaus was pumping his fist and Chandra was losing her mind and so on. During that 30-minute, red-flag delay, Johnson’s crew, his fans, and the many people around NASCAR hoping to see a bit of history were going out of their minds. It was going to happen! Jimmie Johnson! Seven championships! Impossible!

    And, inside the car, Johnson fell asleep

    “I guess I was calm,” he says, and even now he’s surprised.

    There was one more break to come Johnson’s way — he expected to be lined up in the third position, which would have been him on the inside lane with his championship competitor Kyle Busch on the outside. If there was one thing that was clear all day in Miami it was this: You did NOT want to be in the inside lane. That was the lane where Carl Edwards AND Joey Logano saw their dreams end. “You just can’t hold your speed on the inside at Miami,” Johnson says.

    But, NASCAR determined that Busch, not Johnson, should be in the third spot. Johnson broke free from Busch on the restart and took the lead.

    * * *

    [nbcsports_mpx url=]

    There’s an irony about NASCAR: It is the ultimate thrill ride — 200 mph on sheet metal and horsepower and all that’s left of your tires — but you don’t get to NASCAR and you don’t win championships through daredevil feats. You get to NASCAR through great racing, yes, but also by building relationships, by impressing sponsors, by pitching the Lowe’s-Budweiser-M&M’s-FedEx-Napa Parts-Chevrolet-Toyota-Ford car and by working within a team. You win championships by driving like the devil when your car is loose and seems to be on a sheet of black ice, yes, but also by understanding what you don’t know and trusting your crew to handle things. You win championships by controlling your car, but also by relinquishing control. It’s the shakiest of balances.

    And balance is what Johnson does better than anyone in the sport.

    So when everyone asks Johnson how he feels after the seventh championship, well, he tries his best, he uses the balanced words that come closest, but really, in a private moment, he will tell you: He doesn’t really know HOW he feels. It’s all too much to take in.

    “All my life,” he says, “I just wanted to race cars. It was never about the numbers. I didn’t want to win seven championships. I didn’t really want to win one championship. I mean, yeah, I wanted to win, but what I really wanted was to drive a race car.”

    Before this race, he said the thing he wanted was to feel like he did when he was a kid, to strip away all the money and all the fame and all the past glory and just feel that thing he used to stay up all night dreaming about, that thing that pushed him to go down El Cajon Mountain just a little bit faster than felt right.

    Did he?

    “When people ask me how I feel,” he says, “I tell them best I can. I want people to share in this feeling i have. … But I don’t tell them everything.”

    * * *

    The second time Johnson met Dale Earnhardt, well, it’s a much shorter story. Johnson was hanging around with some buddies at Earnhardt’s garage when they all saw The Intimidator’s car roll slowly by with its windows pulled up. Suddenly the car stopped, and it backed up, and the window came down.

    “Hey,” Earnhardt said to Johnson. “You work for me?”

    “No sir.”

    “Then get the hell out of here. I don’t need no lawsuits.”

    And the window rolled back up and Dale Earnhardt drove away.

    At the end of that magical race at Homestead, there was one final restart, and after that Johnson heard “Clear” from his spotter, meaning the race and that seventh championship was his. Then came the disbelief and the crazy dancing and screaming and joy and hugs from his wife and children and the greatest compliment a driver could ever get.

    “Jimmie,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. would say to his friend as he pulled Johnson close, “Dad would think you’re such a badass.”

    The fourth wheel

    MIAMI — Carl Edwards has to know that he’s sort of the odd duck in this year’s Chase. Here, you have Kyle Busch, defending champion, force of nature, superstar. There, you have Jimmie Johnson, six-time champion, legend of the sport.  And third, completing the triangle, you have Joey Logano, 26 years old, phenom trying to insert himself into the story, everybody’s favorite young villain, the future of NASCAR.

    And here is Carl Edwards, 37 years old, a former dirt-track driver who ground out 28 victories in an excellent 13-year career but has never quite crashed through, never won a championship, never quite broken out of the pack of those excellent and professional drivers who make up the heart of NASCAR. People who know him probably know him as the guy who does a backflip when he wins. That’s fun. But it isn’t exactly what he wants.

    When you look at a list of the drivers who won the most races without winning a championship, you see this:

    1. Junior Johnson, 50 wins

    2. Mark Martin, 40 wins

    3. Fireball Roberts, 33 wins

    4. Denny Hamlin, 29 wins

    5. Carl Edwards, 28 wins

    Edwards knows this, knows it better than anyone. He knows there’s a difference in how people look at you when you’ve won a championship — knows there might even be a difference in how you look at yourself.

    Watch: NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship (Sunday at 1:30 p.m. ET on NBC, and NBC Sports App)

    “Winning a championship,” he says, “it just means that, you know, you go to bed Sunday night and know, hey, you did it. You beat the best in the world. And we’re the champions … at least until they start racing again. I guess that’s what it comes down to. That’s about the longest a win can last in this sport.”

    Edwards has had his share of championship heartbreak, beginning with his loss to Tony Stewart in 2011. The two were actually tied in points after an epic duel at Homestead, but the championship went to Stewart because he won more races than Edwards that year. NBCSN has shown that race this week, and Edwards admitted that he watched maybe 10 minutes of it. After that, he was so motivated he was ready to jump in a race car immediately.

    There were other close calls, but now, he’s back, and he will not pretend that it’s just another week. When someone asked all four drivers if they were going to try and treat this week differently from other weeks, the other three guys said, “No.” They talked about how you have to treat this race like any other, prepare the same way. Edwards had a different answer.

    “For me,” Edwards said, “I’m going to be honest, this week does feel different. I mean, yes, we do have to go do the same job, like these guys said. But for me, each moment, I almost have to pinch myself, like, ‘Hey, this is really it, we’re getting to do this.’ So this is more excitement for me personally.”

    “Would winning a championship change your self-perception?”

    “Well, yeah, it would be great. I think it would be great … you can print that. It would be great for a different reason for me at this point in my career, though. I’m starting to just realize how difficult this is.

    “As far as self-perception, probably like most race car drivers, I kind of have an ego problem already. So that could put me over the edge, honestly.”

    Edwards’ advantage could be the track. He has won the pole twice at Homestead and has won the race twice, finishing top five five times in his 12 starts. He just won at Texas, which is a similar track that uses a similar tire setup. “There’s not a better race track,” he says. “Statistically, this is as good as it gets for me.”

    [nbcsports_mpx url=]

    And his dirt-track background sets him up well too. The toughest part of competing in a winner-take-all race is that you have to find a way to win no matter what gets thrown your way. In other races throughout the season, you just do the best you can with what fate deals you. There is always more than one winner in a regular season NASCAR race. There’s the driver that takes the checkered flag, but there are also those who had to overcome numerous problems, mechanical issues, tire trouble, poor pit stops, whatever, and somehow finished seventh or 10th or something like that. Every week, you will hear drivers and crew chiefs say happily, “We got the most out of our car today.”

    But for the four drivers left in the Chase, that’s not really an option on Sunday. It’s all about winning.

    “Carl’s real good at driving through the limits and being able to compensate for something not being right the with the car,” his teammate and competitor Kyle Busch says. “He’s able to make more out of it. So that sets him up pretty well.”

    “I think that comes from his dirt background,” Johnson says. “He’s used to dealing with cars that just weren’t exactly right.”

    “Yeah, that’s nice for people to say,” Edwards himself says. “But this is NASCAR, you have the best drivers in the world, they’re ALL good at making the most of their car. The other three drivers in the Chase are incredible. I don’t really think I have an advantage in that. All of us are good at that.

    “I do feel like, yeah, I like the challenge. I feel like if they would spray the track down with water and said, ‘OK, everybody race,’ I would enjoy that struggle. … But I’ll enjoy this week no matter what. It’s fun. This is what I like.”

    One for the history books

    MIAMI — There is a funny thing about sports dreams. You know, the kind you have when you’re a little kid. You dream about hitting the game-winning home run. You dream about catching the game-winning touchdown pass, or swishing the game-winning basket, or scoring the game-winning goal, or making the putt that wins you the Masters.

    Few of us ever get to do it, of course. But that’s not the funny part.

    The funny part is that the people who DO get to do it, well, they find that it isn’t exactly like the dreams. Take Jimmie Johnson. He has won six NASCAR Sprint Cup Championships. Six. Only two men — Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt with seven — have any idea what that’s like. But to be realistic, even they don’t know EXACTLY what it is like because the sport has grown so much bigger, the money has grown so much bigger, the pressure has grown so much bigger. So many people are counting on you. So many people are rooting against you. Gigantic companies have many millions of dollars at stake.

    And so even though this is all Jimmie Johnson ever wanted — to be the best race car driver — those first five championships felt nothing at all like his childhood dreams. He didn’t even ENJOY them, not in the way we understand the word “enjoy.” Yes, he was very proud of what he and his team did. Yes, he thrilled in the racing, the speed, the challenge, the victories, the opportunities that came with being the best stock-car driver in the world. But it wasn’t fun, if that makes sense. It wasn’t that innocent joy that went along with all those childhood daydreams, that feeling of the world going in slow motion, that intoxicating blur of champagne and happiness and wonder. He would stay up at night, staring at the ceiling, thinking about how he could stay on top.

    In 2013, when Johnson was 38 years old and won his sixth championship, the feeling was closer to what he had hoped. By then, Johnson had let go of a lot of things, a lot of the insecurities. He had stopped worrying so much about pleasing everyone. But even that wasn’t EXACTLY what he had dreamed about.

    [nbcsports_mpx url=]

    “You’re like, ‘Wow, this is nutty, this is stressful, can I do it?'” Johnson says. “You have all of these things weighing you down. When I won those first few championships, it wasn’t fun AT ALL. There was always more to do, you know? In ’13, it definitely felt different. I felt different. That was the most fun I’ve ever had racing for a championship by far.

    “Still, some days, you wish you could feel that thing you wanted as a kid, you know, that place you see in the movies or hear about in stories, and it is surreal, and the world stops and time stops, and it is perfect.”

    So that’s what this time is about. Johnson is 41 years old. He’s a legend of the sport. He has won six championships and 79 races and more than $150 million in prize money. He has won multiple races every year since he was a rookie. The legacy, if such a thing matters, is secure.

    And so, this race is for him.

    “I feel different going into this championship than I have ever felt before, there’s absolutely no doubt about that,” Johnson says. “As weird as it may sound, I’m more comfortable in my own skin than I’ve ever been. And that’s a major player. I have nothing to prove to anyone, and I don’t care what other people think. I really don’t. I’m racing this weekend for me and my family and my team. I don’t have any outside baggage that’s on me. That was other years. There was plenty of that stuff. None of that matters to me anymore.”

    He endured an odd year. It began like most Jimmie Johnson years do — he won in Atlanta in the second race of the year and followed that up three weeks later with a win at Fontana. And then he and his team went into a bit of slump. In a 15-race span, he finished in the top five four times while finishing 20th or worse six times. He and his crew chief Chad Knaus struggled week to week. There was the talk — which has grown louder the last couple of years — that Johnson was close to the end. “I definitely missed driving up front,” Johnson says.

    Watch: NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship (Sunday at 1:30 p.m. ET on NBC, and NBC Sports App)

    Then came the Chase and it has been absolutely perfect. He breezed into the second round, then won the first race, Charlotte, to automatically move into the third round. He promptly won the first race of the third round, in Martinsville, to qualify for Sunday’s final four. Johnson’s team has had two stress-free weeks to prepare the car for this final race, and while nobody knows if that will make a difference, well, it can’t hurt.

    And Johnson is just enjoying it. “I’m excited,” he says. “And I’m fresh. I don’t know if it will change as we get closer to the race, if the nerves will come. But I don’t think it will.”

    He is well aware, of course, that winning this title would tie him with Earnhardt and Petty for most championships — so aware of it that ever since he won the race in Charlotte he has been wearing a helmet with Petty and Earnhardt’s photos on it and the words “Drive for Seven.” He says that if he could tie those two legends of the sport, it would mean the world to him because it would connect him to history.

    But, again, he promises not to let that inflate into pressure.

    “I never race for stats,” he says. “I’ve never raced for stats, for fame, for money. I’ve just always loved racing. I feel like I’m more in touch with that, in tune with that, than I’ve ever been in my career.

    “I think about those dreams I had as a kid, dreams all of us have in our own way I suppose. I guess I want that moment. I’ve done this for a long time. And I’d love to have that moment.”

    Promises, promises

    MIAMI — Two years ago, Joey Logano showed up for his shot at destiny … and he was scared out of his mind. He doesn’t like to say it that way. He would prefer to just say, “I was nervous. Because I didn’t know what was happening. And I think that’s where nerves are going to come from.”

    He was just 24 years old then and he was trying to join Jeff Gordon and Bill Rexford as the only two drivers to win a championship before turning 25 years old. But it was different for Logano. He’d been preordained to be NASCAR’s next superstar ever since he was a teenager. “Sliced bread,” they called him — as in “best thing since …” — and while he sort of got a kick out of the nickname and the expectations when he was a kid, those things soon felt like an anchor tied to his waist.

    “Sliced bread,” people would mutter savagely every time he finished out of the top five.

    “Sliced bread,” people would taunt him because he won just three races in his first five full seasons.

    “Sliced bread,” other drivers would mock when they felt like Logano pushed his aggressiveness too far.

    Then in 2014, it finally came together for Logano. He won five times. He came to Homestead with a real chance to win the championship … only he readily admits that his head just wasn’t in the right place. “I couldn’t settle my mind down,” he says. “I was thinking about what could happen … or what’s going to happen … what’s the week going to look like … what’s the feeling on Sunday going to be … what is it going to feel like like getting in the car … do I have what it takes?”

    Here Logano smiles. He’s famous for that smile.

    Watch: NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship (Sunday at 1:30 p.m. ET on NBC, and NBC Sports App)

    “I think that’s the big one. ‘Do I have what it takes?’ I didn’t know then. I know now.”

    “What do you know?” 

    “I know the challenge ahead. I’m prepared for that. I’m ready for that, ready for the pressure. I’m more than ready, I’m excited about it. I’m genuinely pumped. It’s like a complete 180 from last time I was here.”

    There are times when it feels like Logano has been racing forever — and he HAS been racing full time since 2009 — but he’s still just 26 years old. He’s five years younger than Jimmie Johnson was when he won the first of his so-far six championships, three years younger than Dale Earnhardt when he won his first of seven. And he’s five years younger than any of the other drivers in the Chase this year.

    And it’s the combination of youth and experience that makes him unique … and dangerous. NASCAR people will tell you: Young drivers go FAST. The great Junior Johnson used to say, “They don’t know no better — they haven’t hit the wall yet.” So younger drivers push closer to the edge than might be prudent out of youthful exuberance and daring. That makes them go extremely fast, yes, but then they tend to burn out (or spin out or get spun out).

    Logano has that speed. But he has more or less stopped burning out.

    “When you’re flirting with the edge, you’re going to step over it from time to time,” Jimmie Johnson says. “And he has. I think he’s figured out how to inch his way up to the edge instead of flying over it like he did three or four years ago.”

    “For me,” Carl Edwards says, “a switch has gone off the last couple of years for Joey. He’s just so fast everywhere. I have a feeling he’s going to be VERY fast on Sunday. He’s hungry. He wants this very badly. You could argue that he doesn’t have a lot of experience or whatever but I’ve been around long enough. I’ve watched how he’s been approaching this. I think he’s got a ton of confidence.”

    [nbcsports_mpx url=]

    The other three drivers talk a lot about handling whatever adversity comes this week, being patient, always, in the immortal words of NASA legend Gene Kranz, “Working the problem.” Logano talks about these things too, but more he talks about being aggressive … and being aggressive … and when that doesn’t work, to keep being aggressive.

    “Attack all day,” Logano says of the gameplan. “That’s it. It’s the way our team is. It has been for the last three years or whatever. That’s what we found to be successful for us. Race aggressively. Attack every minute. I start the race and say, ‘I’m here to win,’ and I have that ‘I will not get beat’ attitude throughout the race. Whether that’s good or bad, well, it’s different for other people. Probably it’s a lot different. But it works for us.”

    And when you ask him how he will deal with the frustration that might come with a poor pit stop or a car that won’t quite adjust to conditions or the ever-changing conditions of the track, he smiles again.

    “Frustration is OK,” he says. “It’s OK as long as it’s channeled in the right way. But there’s never that feeling of ‘We’re just not going to win today. It’s just not our day. We suck.’ There’s never that feeling. Because I know we don’t suck. I know I’m a very good race car driver. I know I have a very good race team. And I know we can handle this.”

    The Magic Man

    MIAMI — The wonderful thing about the press conference for the NASCAR Championship Four — just three days before the big race — is that you have all four of the contending drivers sitting on the stage side by side. And because they are sitting next to each other, you can get just a small feel for how they feel about each other and their chances and everything else coming into the winner-take-all final race.

    Joey Logano, for instance, is totally pumped up, super happy. Why not? He won last week to become one of the four drivers to have a chance to win a championship Sunday. This is the dream, man.

    Jimmie Johnson seems calm, beyond calm, like he’s done this whole thing a million times before, which is pretty close to true.

    Carl Edwards looks a bit dazed, but in the best of ways. He’s 37 years old now and he has won 28 races and more than $80 million, but he has never won a Sprint Cup Championship. He looks like a guy in a dream.

    And then there’s Kyle Busch. He looks, um, lethargic.

    “Do you guys like each other?” someone asks the group.

    “Kyle,” Logano says, “we’ll let you answer that.”

    Watch: NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship (Sunday at 1:30 p.m. ET on NBC, and NBC Sports App)

    Busch looks out with a bit of a bewildered expression, as if someone has just woken him up from a nap. “I am exhausted,” he would say later. And when asked why, he would say, “I am always exhausted.”

    “Do you like each other?” was the question to the group.

    “Right now, yes,” Busch says. “In about 25 seconds, no.”

    Kyle Busch has the aura now. For so many years, he was the guy with unlimited potential, the impossibly talented driver who won a lot of races but always should have won more. Busch himself bought into the hype. He lashed out. He got into numerous dust-ups. Fans loathed him. He beat himself up continuously. In the words of his team owner Joe Gibbs: “He always felt like he was letting himself and his team down, like he wasn’t living up to his great talent.”

    Last year, it all changed. What a year that was. Busch got into a wreck at Daytona that threatened to end his entire season — for a brief time it seemed like his career might be in danger. Even once the doctors got a handle on his condition, Busch was supposed to be out for a minimum six months. Three months later he was standing — wobbly but standing — in the hospital room when his wife Samantha gave birth to their son Brexton.

    Then he came back to the track … and he was essentially unbeatable. In a beautiful five-week span, he won at Sonoma, at Kentucky, at Loudon and finally at the Brickyard 400 in Indianapolis — his first major victory. He won so much that he easily qualified for the Chase even though he’d missed 11 races. Then he made it to the final four, and he ran away to victory at Homestead for his first championship. In the last few laps, he was singing the theme song for “Vocabularry” — his infant son’s favorite TV show.

    A magical year like that, yeah, it changes a person.

    “No,” he says now, “it doesn’t feel a whole lot different.”

    A magical year like that, um, it sort of changes a person?

    [nbcsports_mpx url=]

    “Well, look, it hasn’t been terribly different on the racing side,” Busch says. “Personally, with Brexton at home and stuff like that, that’s different. Having him come to all the races, that’s pretty fun. We certainly enjoy the time that we have on the road. But, you know, I’m just me.”

    So, OK, maybe a magical year like that doesn’t change a person — but don’t tell the other drivers that. They see a different Kyle Busch. There was always a saying in the garages about Kyle Busch during those years when he could not quite put everything together: If he ever wins a championship, watch out.

    Now that he’s won one, yes, watch out.

    “He just has so much confidence now, you can see it,” Johnson says. “I mean, he was always a confident guy, but it’s different, I think. Now, he’s a champion. Now, he KNOWS.”

    That is exactly the thing that is apparent as Kyle Busch sits off to the side during the press conference — it’s like he’s separate from the other three. He knows. He’s the defending champion. He’s the closest thing this Chase has to a favorite. He’s the guy in the best position to take over this sport, to be the new Dale Earnhardt, the new Bobby Allison, the new Richard Petty. A year ago, after he won his championship, he boldly said he’d like to win 10 in a row. When people laughed, he made it clear that he wasn’t joking.

    “It’s not about what we did last year,” he says. “We’ve already got that one. It’s in the bag. This is about going out there THIS one. It’s one race. It doesn’t matter what the situation is this week, doesn’t matter what comes your way, you have to figure out a way to win.”

    That, more than anything, might be what makes Kyle Busch the favorite. Right now, there is no stock-car driver anywhere who can make more out of less than Kyle Busch. Just last week in Phoenix, he had a tepid car that was running around 15th for most of the race. Through sheer relentlessness, a few adjustments on the car and a bit of driving brilliance — especially on restarts (Busch is a wonder on restarts) — they somehow finished second and could have won.

    “Oh, Kyle can make some magic,” Johnson says. “And knowing him, I’ll bet he will on Sunday.”

    No more fun and games

    Cam Newton, at his best, is a magical player. He does things that blow minds. He throws 30-yard darts that slip by defensive backs before they can react. He avoids sacks not so much by eluding them as by simply standing up through them, a brick house in the Big Bad Wolf’s wind. Newton takes off running and in the open field he is both halfback and fullback, able at times to split defenders in two the way Gale Sayers could, able at other times to blast through a defender, not unlike the way Neo blasts through Agent Smith at the end of “The Matrix.”

    This is Newton at his height, when the conditions are right, when his team is playing great and the opponent is in retreat and, as the Magic 8-Ball says, “All signs point to yes.”

    This was Newton last year for a 15-1 Panthers team that went to the Super Bowl.

    Something has changed this year, of course. That part is obvious. It isn’t that Newton is playing badly. His numbers are down, yes, and the Panthers are 3-6 and in last place. But he’s still among the top five or 10 quarterbacks out there. And there have been a few familiar moments. He threw for four touchdown passes against San Francisco. He has had a couple of dazzling runs. He has put his team in position to win for the most part, including last week against Kansas City. It isn’t like Newton suddenly forgot how to play football … he’s still Cam Newton.

    But something has obviously changed.

    What? There are a few clear possibilities. The Panthers’ defense was otherworldly last year, forcing turnover after turnover, setting up Newton and his offense with golden opportunities time and again. That has more or less stopped this year. The Panthers are starting inside their own 20-yard line more often. This has affected the Panthers’ offense generally and Newton specifically. He’s thrown only 10 touchdown passes this year. All the numbers are down.

    On offense, the line has been beat-up and inconsistent, and that has knocked Newton off his game. He has thrown off his back foot more often, and that usually leads to bad things. It did last week when the Panthers seemed about ready to put away Kansas City — a retreating Newton threw a pick-six that put Kansas City back in a game that should have been over. Newton has dealt with injuries, too — he missed the game against Tampa Bay, and he wasn’t himself in others.

    Watch: Saints vs. Panthers on Thursday Night Football (7:30 p.m. ET on NBC, and NBC Sports app)

    And, perhaps most of all, teams have been taking their free shots at him at every turn. Newton is 6-foot-5, 245 pounds and a great runner, so teams obviously have to tackle him hard. But there’s no question opponents have taken this to an extreme this season. They have hit Newton late a few times, stolen some shots to the head, unloaded some knockout blows. And, for the most part, there have been no penalties to accompany the hits, possibly BECAUSE Newton is so big and powerful.

    This has driven Newton to distraction. Newton seems to believe the whole world is ganging up on him. A couple of weeks ago, he flatly said that the late hits are “really taking the fun out of the game for me. At times I don’t even feel safe.”

    Newton has a beef. But more to the point here, all of this leads to this rather simple theory that I have about Cam Newton.

    He needs to be having fun to play his best football.

    And this year, he’s just not having any fun.

    Great athletes tend to feed off different motivations. Some want to be loved. Some seem to get a huge kick out of being despised. Some are motivated by fear, others by anger, still others by fame and fortune. Tom Brady, for instance, STILL seems to motivate himself by disrespect (you might have heard that he was selected in the sixth round of the NFL draft) even though it has been years since anybody disrespected him (Roger Goodell aside). Meanwhile, a player like Carolina’s impeccable linebacker Luke Kuechly seems to motivate himself through the daily challenge of figuring out how to break up an offense — it is like a puzzle for him.

    Newton apparently grazes off joy. He wears the hats. He does the dances. He gives away the footballs. The bigger the lead, the more fun he has, the better he plays. The louder the crowd, the more fun he has, the higher he soars. This is part of what makes Newton such a joy; through it all, he PLAYS football the way kids PLAY football. It’s a game. And it’s so much fun when everything is working and everyone has come together.

    This is something people around the Carolina team have noticed for years. There have been times that people inside the organization have wondered if Newton could be serious enough to become a great NFL quarterback. Soon enough they realized that it was the wrong question, realized that being serious doesn’t suit him or his play. You probably noticed how serious Newton looked in the Super Bowl last year. That didn’t turn out well.

    Marty Schottenheimer is one of the many coaches who noted that you can’t have fun in the NFL if you lose. The Panthers are coming off one of their worst losses in recent franchise history, a complete giveaway to the Chiefs. Their playoff situation looks pretty dire — Carolina might have to win out. The key will be getting Newton to start having fun again.

    The remarkable rise of Andy Murray

    For years, there was this fun argument going on about Tiger Woods and Roger Federer. The argument assumed that both men are the best who ever played golf and tennis (an open debate, obviously). And it led to one question: Who is better at their sport?

    The argument never really went anywhere because for every point (golf requires beating the WHOLE field rather than one opponent at a time), there was a counterpoint (one mediocre/bad day in golf does not sink a golfer’s chances, but it can end a tennis player’s tournament).

    For every factor that points to the difficulty of golf (it is so mentally challenging that even the great golfers will miss cuts with some regularity — Phil Mickelson missed 11 in his career) there is another that points to the difficulty of tennis (it is so physically grueling that many of the greatest players — John McEnroe, Bjorn Borg, Martina Hingis, Justine Henin, Mats Wilander, on and on — won their last Grand Slam singles title by the time they turned 25 years old).

    Anyway, it was fun to talk about, even if it never really led anywhere. But there is something that does seem to be emerging about the wonderful dominance of Woods and Federer. You might call the two effects “dishearten” and “hearten.”

    All of this, eventually, will take us to Andy Murray. Hopefully.

    Tiger Woods was such a force in golf that he disheartened his opponents. He broke their spirit. They could not beat him, not when he was on his game, not when he was slightly off his game and, quite often, not even when he was very much off his game. There’s an old Jack Nicklaus line that is even more true for Woods: He knew he would beat you, you knew he would beat you, and he knew that you knew he would beat you.

    FIfty-eight times, Woods was either in the lead or tied for the lead going into the final round. He won 54 of them. He won the first 14 major tournaments he led after 54 holes.

    And how did this uncommon mastery of a sport that is supposed to defy mastery affect other golfers? It crushed them. Sure, there were supremely talented golfers in Woods’ time, several who are in the World Golf Hall of Fame. But let’s put it this way — from the time when Woods broke onto the scene and breezed to the 1997 Masters title to when he won the U.S. Open on one leg, there were 46 major championships.

    Tiger Woods won 14 of them, as mentioned.

    The other 32 majors? Well, 25 different golfers won those 32 majors. Vijay Singh and Phil Mickelson won three. Mark O’Meara, Retief Goosen and Ernie Els won two each. Those five terrific players — four already in the Hall of Fame with only Goosen waiting — won fewer majors than Woods COMBINED. And the other 20 majors were won by 20 different golfers. It’s a clear pattern: Everyone would show up at the majors with the hope that Woods was way off his game. Then, and only then, did they have a chance.

    His magnificence was unassailable. It was meant to be enjoyed and feared but not challenged. The best golfers on earth not named Tiger Woods had to console themselves with the huge sums of money that Tiger brought into the sport and the hope that maybe someday he would stop winning everything and leave some tournaments for everyone else.

    So, yes, Tiger Woods was disheartening.

    Roger Federer, somehow, was the opposite. He was every bit as dominant as Woods — the numbers are even more striking. From 2003, when Federer won his first Wimbledon to 2010 when he took the Australian Open, there were 27 Grand Slam tournaments. Federer won 16 of them, more than half, and reached the final in another six. The only other tennis players to win Grand Slams in Roger’s time: Rafael Nadal, who won six, and five others who managed one each.

    But it was different somehow. There was something magnanimous about Federer’s beautiful game, something that opened up possibilities in the minds of other tennis players. Golfers would see Tiger Woods hit miracle shots out of trouble and make every important putt he looked at and they would think: NO SHOT. But Federer would hit some implausible running forehand winner or spin a drop-volley with such touch that it would not even bounce, and the other tennis players would think: I WANT TO DO THAT!

    That begins with Nadal, of course. He seemed to be just the latest in a long line of Spanish and Latin American clay-court specialists — Sergi Brugera, Gustavo Kuerten, Gaston Gaudio, Albert Costa, Juan Carlos Ferrera — who would show up at the French Open to win and then disappear like top-spinning swallows of Capistrano.

    Nadal, though, was stirred to take his game to a higher place. He has spoken eloquently about how the inspiration of Federer took him there. Nadal has won all four major championships and 14 Grand Slam tournaments in all — he has his place now in the inner circle of all-time tennis greats. His rivalry with Federer might just be the greatest in tennis history. Nadal has controlled it for the most part with shots that kick up high and attack Fed’s backhand like wasps. Still, their tennis has lifted the sport.

    Novak Djokovic was next. He had both Federer AND Nadal to contend with, something that certainly could have left him entirely discouraged. At times, he did indeed seem discouraged. Djokovic does not have quite the grace or touch of Federer nor the ferocious power of Nadal. He found his own path — foot speed, instincts, hitting balls on the rise, imposing return of serve and sheer ambition. He has now won 12 Grand Slam titles, including the career Grand Slam. He has a winning record against both Federer and Nadal. He too has a place in tennis’ inner circle.

    All of which brings us to Andy Murray. He has been around a long time. It is tempting to think that Murray is younger than he is, but he was born in the same month as Djokovic (Murray is actually a week older). He is less than a year younger than Nadal. He played in his first Wimbledon in 2005. He has endured more or less the ENTIRE period of Roger and Rafa and Novak’s dominance.

    He did not just endure that dominance, he was repeatedly smacked down by their dominance. The first 10 times he reached at least a Grand Slam semifinal, he was knocked out by Nadal (four times), Federer (three times) or Djokovic (two times)*. If anyone had good reason to grudgingly accept that he was born at just the wrong time, it was Murray.

    *He was also beaten once in a semi by Andy Roddick, another slap in the face — he couldn’t even be the best ANDY on the court that day.

    And Murray seemed, well, to put it delicately, just the type of person who would grudgingly accept that he was born at just the wrong time. Murray in 2008, when he was 21 years old and had not yet won a single significant tournament (no offense to the Qatar Open) nor reached the final of a Grand Slam event, wrote an autobiography called “Hitting Back.” Nobody was entirely sure WHY he wrote an autobiography at that time, but he did indeed hit back — at British tennis, at the media members who doubted him (he was refusing to even talk to the BBC at the time) and at the unfair obstacles he seemed sure that everyone was putting in his way and his way alone. He came across as a very angry young man, though nobody was entirely sure why.

    Then, maybe the answer why was obvious. Federer was majestic then. Nadal was ascendant. Djokovic won the Australian Open that very year. There seemed to be no room in the tennis world for Andy Murray, and he seemed to know it.

    So what happened from there? The book kept getting updated as Murray began growing up. The paperback version of that book was called “Coming of Age.” And then the book title was updated and titled  “Seventy-Seven: My Road to Wimbledon Glory.” That happened in 2013, after Murray broke the 77-year British drought and won Wimbledon. By then, he was a different tennis player and a different man. He had won the Olympics in London. He won the U.S. Open that year. He had found himself.

    And I would argue that it was, once again, the inspiration of Federer, who inspired Nadal, who inspired Djokovic, who inspired Murray. Andy improved everything about his game. And he did it by building up every single part of his game. He doesn’t really do anything specifically better than the rest of the world. But you know those Sprint commercials where Sprint basically admits it’s not QUITE as good as Verizon, but it’s 99 percent as good for half the price?

    Murray doesn’t quite have Djokovic’s return of serve (no one in tennis history does) or his pure speed — but it’s probably 99 percent.

    Murray doesn’t quite have Nadal’s bullfighter tenacity — win or die with honor — but he’s probably at 99 percent.

    Murray doesn’t quite have Federer’s ability to hit the “gaga shot” that tilts an opponent’s head the same way shaking a pinball machine does — but he’s probably at 99 percent.

    In other words, at least as I see it, Murray created a game that is like an homage to those masters he has been trying to beat. He does a little bit of everything, and he brings along some of that youthful rage and intensity, and here he is: Murray is now the No. 1 player in the world.

    It is unclear if he will stay at No. 1 for very long. Djokovic seems worn down by his own extraordinary rise, but he has still made the final of nine of the last 11 Grand Sam tournaments, winning six of them. Djokovic also dominated the head-to-head matchups between them, winning 24 of 34 matches and eight of the 10 times they played in Grand Slams. It seems a pretty good bet that he will be back, and so this could be just a Murray blip, a fluke of timing.

    Or it could be more. Either way, for Murray to reach No. 1 after all these years is an extraordinary thing.

    When Tiger Woods hit the golf scene, you will remember there was a lot of talk about the generation of golfers he would give rise to, the young golfers who, seeing what he was doing, would find a way to take golf even higher. We might be seeing that with golfers like Rory McIlroy and Jason Day and Jordan Spieth, though it is too early to tell.

    Federer’s impact is clearer. He came into the sport during a lull, just as the Pete Sampras-Andre Agassi era was ending, and he played sublime and previously unimaginable tennis. And his tennis genius has helped create three of the greatest tennis players who ever lived. I’m sure he didn’t mean to do that. But, hey, who DOESN’T want to be Roger Federer?