Kids in the Hall

I’m talkin’ baseball

Like Reggie, Quisenberry

Talkin’ baseball

Carew and Gaylord Perry

Seaver, Garvey, Schmidt and Vida Blue

If Cooperstown is calling, it’s no fluke

They’ll be with Willie, Mickey and the Duke.

— Terry Cashman, Talkin’ Baseball

Talkin’ Baseball is a great song, and I cut Terry some slack on his Hall of Fame predictions. Garvey, yeah, that was a miss. But he got five of the eight right, which is pretty good, and two that he missed – Dan Quisenberry and Vida Blue – he needed to make rhymes work. Still, I always thought he should have used “Rod Carew” instead of Vida Blue in that fifth line.

I’m saying that I think the song should have gone like this:

I’m talkin’ baseball

Like Reggie, Quisenberry

Talkin’ baseball

George Brett and Gaylord Perry

Seaver, Garvey, Schmidt and Rod Carew

If Cooperstown is calling, it’s no fluke

They’ll be with Willie, Mickey and the Duke

Then you have six of eight Hall of Famers. True, Garvey could be replaced by Jim Rice. And Dan Quisenberry is still in there, but:

1. The Quisenberry-Gaylord Perry rhyme is too good pass up.

2. I’ve long made the case that Dan Quisenberry is every bit as good a Hall of Fame candidate as Bruce Sutter, who was elected. Their career production is so similar, in fact, that it’s really illogical and off-putting for one to have been elected by the Baseball Writers while the other was barely even considered. But that’s a subject for another time.

For now, the subject is the Baseball Hall of Fame and today’s players. The inspiration for the topic is Minnesota’s Joe Mauer, who, you might know, is having another subpar season. He has been a full-time first baseman for two seasons, and in those two years he’s hitting .272/.347/.375, which is not good for a first baseman. He’s not bad defensively, but he’s also not especially good, and anyway first base is an offensive position. His Hall of Fame case sinks a little more every year.

So, where does Mauer stand now? Well, let’s dive on in, shall we? For fun, I throw in my own percentages – the percentages representing how certain or uncertain I am about their Hall of Fame chances:


The 100 percent, no-doubt, they are going to the Hall of Fame class

(These are the players who are going into the Hall of Fame even if they retire tomorrow):

Albert Pujols

— Pujols has been up and down ever since he arrived in Anaheim, and so it’s easy to forget JUST how good he was for more than a decade in St. Louis. If you want to be reminded, just take a look at where he stands on the all-time list for players his age.

Through age 35, he has 576 doubles (second to Tris Speaker), 551 homers (fourth), 1,671 RBIs (seventh) and a .584 career slugging percentage (ninth). If he can keep this 2015 revival going for a few more years, he will hit 600-plus homers, drive in perhaps 2000 runs, end up in the statistical class of Musial, Aaron, Mays and so on. He was, in his prime, a fantastic defender and a good baserunner and anything else that made for a great ballplayer.

Miguel Cabrera

— His career numbers are not quite in the no-doubt Hall of Fame zone – he is just shy of 2,300 hits, has already passed 400 homers, etc. – but he’s already a lock. He won the Triple Crown. He won multiple MVP Awards. He won four batting titles. His career average is .321. He’s in even if he never takes another swing. Of course, he’s 32 so there should be more than a few swings left.

Ichiro Suzuki

— I suspect Ichiro will stick around to get 3,000 major-league hits – I would think that a big league club will keep him on next year to give him that chance. And that will lock things down, but he doesn’t need 3,000 major-league hits. When you add Ichiro’s remarkable first 10 years in the big leagues (batted .331 and AVERAGED 224 hits per season) to his youthful brilliance in Japan, you are talking about a no-doubt, first-ballot Hall of Famer.

There are those who think Ichiro has been a bit overrated. This is because he didn’t walk much, and he didn’t hit for power. Those two things have dampened his on-base and slugging percentages, the two key offensive metrics. The point is valid. But to me, Ichiro was always as much an artist as a ballplayer. He hit. He ran, He threw. Nobody was quite like him.

Adrian Beltre

— Maybe it surprises you to see him on this sure-thing list, maybe it doesn’t. Either way, Beltre is one of the greatest defensive third basemen in baseball history (his four Gold Gloves actually underrate him), and he has more than 500 career doubles and 400 career homers.

We’ll talk a bit throughout about Wins Above Replacement (the baseball-reference variety), though we’ll try not to overuse the stat for this exercise. Beltre’s 81 career WAR places him sixth on the third-baseman list, behind four Hall of Famers (Schmidt, Mathews, Boggs, Brett) and soon-to-be-inducted Chipper Jones, and Beltre ranks ahead of two others (Brooks Robinson and Ron Santo). He could still add to his totals. He might have to convince some doubters, but I have no doubt that when it’s his time, people will see just how great a player Beltre has been.


The 75-99 percent, I think they’re going but it’s not a sure-thing class:

Robinson Cano (91 percent)

— It’s a bit too early to make the definitive call on Cano. He’s just 32 and, if this year is any indication, he’s slowing down some. That said, I’m betting he’s getting in.  If you look at him through age 32, he has numbers pretty similar to a guy named George Brett:

Brett through 32: .316/.375/.507, 400 doubles, 108 triples, 193 HR, 978 RBIs, 1,002 runs.

Cano through 32: .307/.355/.494, 441 doubles, 31 triples, 231 HR, 958 RBIs, 934 runs.

Now add in that Cano has won two Gold Gloves as a second baseman. If his career takes a nasty turn downward, sure, he could still lose his Hall of Fame footing. But for now I think it’s a steady Hall of Fame trail.

David Ortiz (87 percent)

— I go back and forth on how Ortiz’s case will be received by the BBWAA. Sometimes I think he will sail into the Hall of Fame because he’s one of the true stars of the age, he will likely finish with 500 homers, and few can match his postseason heroics, particularly in the World Series.

Then, part of me thinks: No, he won’t sail in. The 500 homers don’t carry the weight they once did. There are some steroid accusations. He was essentially a career DH. If you look, his numbers strongly resemble the numbers of Fred McGriff, who can’t get any traction in the Hall of Fame race.

Ortiz: .284/.378/.545, 491 homers, 1,606 RBIs.

McGriff: .284/.377/.509, 493 homers, 1,550 RBIs.

Then there’s the case of Edgar Martinez, who was an all-time hitter – a better hitter, I think, than Ortiz – but isn’t getting much support, largely because he was a designated hitter.

So, it’s tricky. In the end, I think Ortiz will get elected. I don’t think you can tell the story of early 21st Century baseball without him.

[parallax src=”” height=600 credit=”Getty Images”]

Yadier Molina (84 percent)

— At retirement, he will have an argument as the greatest defensive catcher in the history of baseball. That gets him in, even with an average bat.

Mike Trout (81 percent)

 — Ridiculous, absolutely ridiculous, to put a 24-year-old kid on this list. How could I be 81 percent that any 24-year-old will someday go into the Hall? What about Dwight Gooden? What about Cesar Cedeno? What about Andruw Jones? Heck, what about A-Rod?

I know. But Trout might be the best young player we’ve ever seen in this game.

Most WAR through his ongoing age-23 season (Trout’s age on July 1, which is how “Baseball Age” is determined):

1. Ty Cobb, 36 WAR

2. Mike Trout, 35.5 WAR

3. Ted Williams, 34.2 WAR

4. Mel Ott, 31.4 WAR

5. Ken Griffey Jr., 30.1 WAR

Sure, you can come up with any number of horrible ways that Mike Trout’s career could go off the rails. I’m betting on him.

Alex Rodriguez (75 percent)

— OK, I’m guessing. I don’t really know what will happen with A-Rod. Heck, I don’t even know if I will vote for A-Rod, much less anyone else. He’s a no-doubt Hall of Famer as a player. And he’s also an admitted steroid cheat who was suspended for a full year after fighting with baseball. It’s a pretty ugly case, and right now there’s no signs of mercy for any steroid cheat.

But I think in time – maybe a LONG time, but in time — the Hall of Fame will make peace with the steroid scandal. I’m not sure how it will happen. I’m not sure what “peace” will mean. But I think that someday there will be a Hall of Fame place for Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens and, yes, even Alex Rodriguez. That someday could be decades off. But someday.


The 51-74 percent, yeah, I think they’re going in but there is work to do be done:

Clayton Kershaw (74 percent)

— There are few things sillier than betting on a young pitcher. Tim Lincecum looked like a Hall of Fame lock after winning his two Cy Youngs. Justin Verlander, only a couple of years ago, looked like the surest thing. But I believe in Kershaw’s Hall of Fame case for a couple of reasons. One, he’s already accomplished a whole lot. He’s won three Cy Youngs and an MVP, he’s already got more than 1,600 strikeouts, his team’s record is 144-88 in games he starts. That’s pretty good stuff for a 27-year-old.

Two, he’s pretty close to walking through what I call the Koufax Door. Sandy Koufax is in the Hall of Fame essentially for four legendary seasons and two good ones. That’s it. That rest of his career adds up to almost nothing. It is four legendary seasons and two good ones.

Now, Koufax’s version of legendary seasons can not be repeated – he threw more than 300 innings in three of those seasons. But the point remains: If you can be ultra dominant for five or six years, you have a shot of getting into the Hall of Fame through the Koufax Door. Pedro Martinez strutted through the Koufax door. I think Kershaw’s last five seasons have been pretty close to legendary. One or two more of those seasons, and I think the Koufax Door opens up.

Felix Hernandez (68 percent)

— Yes, I’m projecting. King Felix needs two more great seasons and maybe three or four more good ones. It’s no fun betting on a pitcher, but he seems like the type to last.

Buster Posey (62 percent)

— Am I really saying that Buster Posey at age 28 – with 805 career hits and fewer than 100 career homers – is a better Hall of Fame bet right now than Joe Mauer? Well, as Cincinnati Bengals owner Mike Brown once said after a troubled negotiation: “It’s unfortunate, but it’s the fact.”

Mauer has been one of my favorite players, and I desperately want to see him revive his career. He might. He might not. Meanwhile, Posey does what he does – he’s quietly putting up another MVP-type season as leader for a team that already has won three World Series titles with him behind the plate. He’s only 28 and still needs to have several more great seasons. But do you doubt for even a minute that he will?

Zack Greinke (59 percent)

— Well, I didn’t know where to put Greinke because he’s at that awkward age (31) where his career could still go any number of different ways. But I will say this: He currently leads the league in ERA, innings pitched and WHIP and is the favorite at the moment to win the Cy Young Award. That would be his second. His career numbers are beginning to gain some heft. He’s beginning to emerge as a very real Hall of Fame candidate.

Troy Tulowitzki (51 percent)

— He has to stay healthy. With Tulo, the question is health. But if he can stay healthy and if he can find a way to put up some offensive numbers away from Coors Field (no sure thing there, Tulo has hit 40 points less and slugged 90 points lower on the road), well, he’s got a good chance. He’s put up some great number already (he closes in on 200 homers) and he has won two Gold Gloves. But health and adjusting to life without altitude will determine his Hall of Fame course.

Joe Mauer (51 percent)

— Let’s assume for a moment that Joe Mauer never has another good season. He might still have several good years, but let’s assume for now that he’s done as anything more than a mediocre player.

If that’s the case, his Hall of Fame case relies, almost entirely on 8 1/2 full seasons as a great-hitting catcher. Is that enough?

Probably not. You look at the catchers that have gone into the Hall of Fame, they all had long careers as catchers – Gary Carter, Carlton Fisk, Johnny Bench, etc.

Look at some Hall of Famers games as catchers (Piazza should go in next year):

Carlton Fisk, 2,226 games

Gary Carter, 2,056 games

Johnny Bench, 1,742 games

Yogi Berra, 1,699 games

Mike Piazza, 1,630 games

Roy Campanella, 1,183 games

Joe Mauer, 920 games

That’s not promising for Mauer – he has 263 fewer games as catcher than Roy Campanella, who started his career in the Negro Leagues and was paralyzed after age 35. And Mauer probably will never catch another game. I don’t think he gets in based solely on the first half of his career.

So if he never finds it and spends the next few years hitting .270 with no power, I don’t think he will get elected. He needs a second chapter to get back on track. I want to believe.


The ultra-borderline, I’m just not seeing how they get enough votes class:

Carlos Beltran (46 percent)

— I watched Beltran grow up in the Major Leagues, and I think he’s got a strong Hall of Fame case. He’s accumulated 67.9 Wins Above Replacement, which slots in pretty well among Hall of Fame center fielders –behind the Mays, Cobbs and Mantles of the world but in nicely with the next tier guys like Duke Snider, Richie Ashburn and Kirby Puckett.

Beltran has been a true five-tool player – power, speed, defense, hitting, throwing. I think the best way to illustrate Beltran’s Hall of Fame case is to say that there are three center fielders in baseball history with 300 homers and 300 stolen bases. One is Willie Mays. Two is Steve Finley. Three is Carlos Beltran.

One is perhaps the greatest player in the history of the game.

Two was a good but not great player who got four Hall of Fame votes his one year on the ballot.

Where does three fit in? He is a better player than Finley. He is not nearly as good as Mays. The Hall of Fame line is right where he stands. I don’t think he will quite get the support.

[parallax src=”” height=600 credit=”Getty Images”]

Jimmy Rollins (41 percent)

— He will have his supporters. He’s a four-time Gold Glove-winning shortstop with an MVP in his trophy case, and he will finish with more than 2,500 hits. I don’t think he was/is quite as good a player as Alan Trammell, who can’t get any Hall of Fame momentum. But I suspect there will be a pretty strong push for him when the time comes, and so he’s got an outside shot.

Mark Teixeira (35 percent)

— He looked to be finished as a player, and now he’s having his own renaissance season with 31 homers and a .553 slugging percentage. If he could keep that going for two or three more years, he just might get to 500 homers (he’s got 394 now, and he turns 36 in April). He’s got five Gold Gloves, too. I don’t think he will quite build the case but it’s not impossible.

CC Sabathia (32 percent)

— Through his age-31 season, Sabathia was 191-102 with a 125 ERA+. I’m not much for pitcher win totals, but he was 12th on the all-time list through age 31, right between Hall of Famers Pete Alexander and Juan Marichal. He also had more than 2,200 strikeouts, and he was nestled between Bob Feller and Roger Clemens on that list. He’d won a Cy Young Award and finished close three other times.  He seemed more or less a sure Hall of Famer then.

That was just three years ago. But that’s the thing about predicting Hall of Famers; Sabathia has been mostly disastrous since 2012; he’s been injured, he’s been knocked around, and now his Hall of Fame case looks somewhat Vida Blue-ish.

Adrian Gonzalez (22 percent)

— Kind of a poor man’s Teixeira. He’s two years younger and doesn’t have quite the home run totals, but hits for a higher average and with more doubles. Teixeira, as mentioned, might make a run for 500 homers, which could be a Hall of Fame entry point for him. Gonzo probably doesn’t have that possibility, so it will be tougher for him to stand out.

Jonathan Papelbon and Francisco Rodriguez (16 percent)

— I don’t know what to do with relief pitchers and the Hall of Fame. Papelbon is 34 and he already has 344 career saves. He talks about chasing down Mariano Rivera’s save record; I don’t see that happening. But if he gets to 500, will that make him a Hall of Famer? I don’t think so, but other people value one-inning closers much more than I do.

K-Rod is more than a year younger than Papelbon, and he, too, is having another big closer season (though it’s for Milwaukee, so you might have missed it), and he has MORE career saves than Papelbon. I would not have guessed that one, by the way. K-Rod also has the all-time single-season saves record. Papelbon’s career is tidier, while K-Rod has been more up and down, but I think K-Rod’s case is likely to be every bit as good when they retire.

Mark Buehrle (11 percent)

Nobody really thinks of Buehrle as a Hall of Famer, but you know how those crafty lefties can pitch forever. He’s got 212 career pitcher wins, he’s having another successful season at age 36, if he could win 13 or 14 games a year for another five years, well, suddenly he’s approaching 280 wins at age 41, and he might think about going for 300. I’m not saying that WILL happen. I’m just saying it could happen.


The they-need-a-revival-to-get-back-on-the-Hall-of-Fame track class:

David Wright

— I basically came up with this category for Wright. You look at his career, and it’s pretty fantastic. He has hit .298/.377/.494 with 231 career homers, 375 career doubles, he’s a seven-time All-Star and two-time Gold Glove winner. He’s still just 32 years old which means he could still have a few good years.

But he’s been so beat up, he has just nine home runs since the start of the 2014 season. If his career kind of winds down from here, he will be in the Ron Cey, Robin Ventura, Kenny Boyer class of almost but not quite. If he has a reawakening, he can still get himself on the Hall of Fame track.

Justin Verlander

— The collapse of Verlander has been the most shocking thing I’ve seen in baseball since … I don’t know, the collapse of Dwight Gooden, maybe? Gooden, though, made a lot of personal mistakes. Verlander just suddenly stopped pitching well. From 2009-12, he led the league in strikeouts three times, in ERA+ twice, in WHIP once, in innings pitched three times (alarm bells!) and in pitcher wins twice.  He won a Cy Young, an MVP and the hearts of millions.

Then, one day, he was ordinary. Sure, it shouldn’t be that hard to understand – great pitchers get hurt, they wear out, it has happened dozens and dozens of times before. Still, it was hard to understand with Verlander. One day he’s throwing 99 with an unhittable curveball. Next day, he’s topping out at 94 with a curve that hangs like it’s in a museum. I was talking to a friend in Detroit, and he was saying that he thinks Verlander will rebound and be a good pitcher again. I hope so.

Dustin Pedroia

 — He’s just 31, but the body has taken a pounding. He has an MVP on his resume, which always helps in the Hall of Fame game, and he has won some Gold Gloves which helps too. But he’s missed parts of the last two seasons, his slugging percentage has fallen off. He needs to reestablish himself as an everyday star to get back into the Hall of Fame conversation.

Joey Votto

— I didn’t have Votto in my original version of this story, something numerous people pointed out (thanks!). They’re right, he should be here: He’s really the first-base version of Pedroia. He has won an MVP, he has brilliant career numbers (.310/.419/.533). He’s also been beat up and his career meandered somewhat off track. Votto’s extreme patience at the plate and his relatively low RBI totals have frustrated quite a few Reds fans through the years. But he’s 31, he’s having a good year this year, and he could reestablish himself as one of the best offensive players in the game — and the Hall of Fame is back in play.


The very good players but it looks like they will fall short of the Hall of Fame class:

Jose Bautista

— I guess I shouldn’t write him off before he turns 35 (in October) but he got such a late start – he did not have his first great season until he was 29 – that he just doesn’t seem capable of compiling big enough numbers. He has made the All-Star team every year since 2010, he’s averaging 35 homers a year for the last six years, he’s a wonderful player. I expect him to be a wonderful player for a few more years.

Tim Hudson

— I wonder how Hall of Fame voting for starting pitchers will evolve. For the last 30 years it has been pretty easy for voters. Three-hundred-game winners are in. Three-thousand-strikeout pitchers are in (mostly). Absurdly dominant pitchers like Koufax and Pedro are in.

But as starters make fewer and fewer starts and throw fewer and fewer innings, those big career numbers are not realistic. Three hundred wins will be awfully tough for pitchers making 28 to 33 starts a year. Look at the win-loss records of the winningest pitchers between born between 1975 and 1985 (pitchers between ages 30 and 40):

1. Tim Hudson, 220-132

2. Mark Buehrle, 212-157

2 (tie). CC Sabatha, 212-128

4. Roy Halladay, 203-105

5. Livan Hernandez, 178-177

6. Barry Zito, 165-143

6 (tie). Javier Vazquez, 165-160

8. A.J. Burnett, 163-155

8 (tie). Roy Oswalt, 163-102

10. John Lackey, 162-124

None of them threatened 300 wins. Halladay is, I think, a Hall of Famer … but with only 203 wins. Hudson has had a very nice career, and he does have a Hall of Fame case if you look at some of the advanced statistics. But I think it will take time for Hall of Fame voters to adjust their thinking on starting pitchers.

Torii Hunter

— He will have his Hall of Fame advocates. He was, for a time, an otherworldly defensive centerfielder (he has nine Gold Gloves), and he became a better offensive player in his later years. He had 350 career homers and he’s Top 100 all-time in career extra-base hits and RBIs.

Chase Utley

— His career is an awful lot like Nomar Garciaparra’s – both middle infielders, brilliant hitters, each put up five or six MVP-type seasons, each had their careers shortened by injuries. Garciaparra’s numbers are more eye-popping than Utley’s (much higher batting averages, lots of extra-base hits) but if you look closely, Utley was probably the better player.

Look at 2009. Utley hit just .282, but he walked 88 times and led the the league in getting hit by pitches (24 times). He hit 31 homers and scored 112 runs. He stole 23 bases without getting caught. He didn’t win the Gold Glove – he never won a Gold Glove – but the advanced numbers suggested he was a superb second baseman.

Now, look at the year before that. Utley hit .292, walked 64 times, led the league in getting hit by pitches (27), hit 41 doubles, 33 homers, stole 14 bases, scored 113 runs and drove in 104. He was, according to John Dewan’s Runs Saved statistic, the best defensive second baseman in baseball and, perhaps, the best overall defender in the game. Both those years, he was a viable MVP candidate, even if his teammate Ryan Howard got the MVP voting love.

Utley had five seasons more or less like that. He won’t get into the Hall of Fame. But for a handful of years, he was one of the best to ever play the position.

Bartolo Colon

— He’s not going to the Hall of Fame, but let me show you two pitching lines:

Pitcher A: 214-152, 110 ERA+, 2,206 Ks, 848 walks, 1 Cy Young Award.

Pitcher B: 224-166, 104 ERA+, 2,012 Ks, 954 walks, 1 Cy Young Award.

Pitcher A is Colon, of course. Pitcher B is Hall of Famer Catfish Hunter.

Matt Holliday

— He’s still 35, but he’s hurting and declining. It’s a been a very nice career. He won a batting title while in Colorado. He is a lifetime .307 hitter. He has more than 1,000 careers RBIs and runs.

Victor Martinez

— Another guy with a better career than you might remember – he’s got a career .303 batting average with 198 homers and approaching 1,000 RBIs.  Here’s an interesting piece of trivia for you: Victor Martinez has almost as many games at catcher (858) and Joe Mauer (920).


Under-30 players with a good shot at the Hall of Fame;

Andrew McCutchen

— Won the MVP two years ago, was even better last year, is having another great season in 2015. The face of the resurgent Pirates.

[parallax src=”” height=600 credit=”Getty Images”]

Bryce Harper

— It’s really premature to put him on this list; he’s in the middle of only his first great season. But he’s just 22, and he’s impossibly driven, and we knew all knew this was coming.

Paul Goldschmidt

— Phenomenal player who has already led the league in homers and RBIs and this year is leading the league in hitting and intentional walks. He was an eighth-round pick out of Texas State, nobody saw this coming. He’s one of the best players in baseball and figures to be for years to come

Giancarlo Stanton

— The most ferocious power hitter in baseball, the only thing that can hold him back is his own health.

Madison Bumgarner

— He just turned 26, and we’ve talked again and again about the folly of betting on pitchers’ futures. But he is at the start of a beautiful career, and already he has legendary World Series performances to boost his case.

David Price

— He’s turns 30 at the end of this month, so he just barely makes this list. He’s got a Cy Young Award and a few other nice years. For the Hall of Fame, I suspect he will need to find the right team in free agency and become a consistent force.

Craig Kimbrel

— Again, I don’t know how Hall of Fame voters will feel about closers in the future, but Kimbrel has averaged nearly 15 strikeouts per nine innings and led the league in saves each of his first four full seasons.

Chris Sale

— People have been predicting Sale to break down physically ever since he was in college. So far, though, his body holds up. This year, he is striking out almost 12 hitters per nine innings and he has a 6.5-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

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?