Monitoring the Hall of Fame Monitor

I‘ve been working for a while on a big Baseball Hall of Fame idea — I hope to have that out in the next month or so. And while doing some work on it, I ran across a wonderful little prediction section in Bill James’ excellent Whatever Happened to the Hall of Fame. Bill was explaining his Hall of Fame Monitor, a method he created to predict a player’s chances of getting elected by the Baseball Writers Association into the Hall of Fame.

The Hall of Fame Monitor awards points for different categories (17 categories for everyday players, 16 for pitchers). You add them all up, and anyone who gets more than 100 points is “likely to get into the Hall of Fame.” As it turns out, 125 points is a better indicator than 100, but the main thing is that this system works quite well.

Remember: The Monitor works only for predictive purposes. It is not meant to determine who DESERVES to go to the Hall of Fame. It is based on the sorts of accomplishments that seem to impress BBWAA voters. How many times did he hit .300 in a season? How many times did he get 200 hits or 100 RBIs? How many times did he win 20 games or strike out 200 in a season or throw a no-hitter? How many MVPs? How many Cy Youngs? That sort of thing.

One more time just so we all have it: The Hall of Fame Monitor does not calculate who belongs in the Hall. It anticipates who will get voted into the Hall.

Let’s use 125 Monitor points as our standard to show you how it works:

Hitters: There are 109 Hall of Fame eligible hitters with 125 Monitor Points. Ninety-seven are already in the Hall of Fame. That’s 90 percent.

And the ones not in the Hall of Fame, for the most part, have presumed PED connections. Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Rafael Palmeiro, Mark McGwire and Gary Sheffield are the highest-ranked players not in the Hall of Fame. Then comes Jeff Bagwell, who should get elected next year. Edgar Martinez is on this list too, and he still has a chance.

Pitchers: There are 52 Hall of Fame-eligible pitchers since 1900* with 125 points. Forty-seven are in the Hall of Fame. That’s 90 percent again.

The five not on the list include Roger Clemens (obvious reasons), Curt Schilling (will still get elected, I think), Trevor Hoffman (will get elected as soon as next year), Jim Kaat and Lee Smith (more on them in a bit)

*Nineteenth-century pitchers racked up huge Hall of Fame Monitor points because they threw so many innings.

Fun stuff, right? Well, for his book, Bill used the Monitor to predict who the BBWAA would vote into the Hall of Fame over the next 25 years. The book came out in 1994, so let’s see how he did.

* * *


Bill’s prediction: Mike Schmidt and Jim Rice

Actual: Mike Schmidt

Interesting that Bill thought Jim Rice would sail into the Hall of Fame on the first ballot. He did not — Rice got less than 30 percent of the vote that first year, and his Hall of Fame election turned out to be a long and semi-contentious deal. It took Rice the full 15 years to garner the 75 percent necessary for election.

Here’s what I think happened: In the 1990s and 2000s, baseball writers began to change subtly the way they voted. There’s still a lot of gut feeling when it comes to Hall of Fame voting — I know a Hall of Famer when I see one — but in the 1970s and 1980s, it was ALL gut feeling. Nobody defended why Billy Williams or Lou Brock or Catfish Hunter or Willie McCovey or Willie Stargell got voted in. It was obvious. Those guys felt like Hall of Famers. Meanwhile, Reggie Smith, Bobby Bonds, Jim Bunning, Ken Boyer, Orlando Cepeda, these guys did not quite feel like Hall of Famers (Bunning and Cepeda were elected later by the veteran’s committee).

In the 1990s, I think, more writers began to think of the Hall of Fame less as interpretive art and more as something to research and study. Some resent the change and think the Hall of Fame has become too number-driven and too performance driven. Most seem happy with the change.

So, while Jim Rice FELT like a Hall of Famer — he hit .300 seven times and just about hit .300 for his career, won an MVP award and led the league in homers three times and RBIs twice — people took a closer look and had some questions. He was a power hitter who did not hit 400 career homers. His numbers were bolstered significantly by Fenway Park. His defensive reputation was lacking. He hit into a ton of double plays.

After asking and getting comfortable with all these points, the BBWAA did vote in Rice. But it took some conversation. The Hall of Fame voting was changing in ways that were not easy to predict.

* * *

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Bill’s prediction: Don Sutton and Pete Rose

Actual: Nobody

Sutton was elected two years later. Rose, well, that story has been told.

* * *


Bill’s Prediction: Steve Garvey and Phil Niekro

Actual: Phil Niekro

When Bill James wrote the book, Steve Garvey was had gathered about 40 percent of the vote each of his first two times on the ballot. He seemed destined for the Hall of Fame.

What happened to Garvey’s Hall of Fame case is not entirely clear. The narrative has been that Garvey’s personal problems — his philandering and illegitimate children and so on — cost him the Hall of Fame. Maybe that’s true, but it doesn’t quite add up. Garvey’s mistakes in life were well known by the time he came on the ballot in 1993. Rick Reilly’s devastating story about Garvey had appeared in Sports Illustrated four years earlier. His ex-wife’s book “The Secret Life of Cyndi Garvey” had also come out four years earlier. The jokes about Garvey were rampant long before he went on the ballot. Heck, I remember Pete Rose himself telling me this one in 1994:

Rose: Did you hear about the Breeder’s Cup?

Me: No.

Rose: I bet on it, and Garvey won it.

Garvey still got strong early support for the Hall of Fame. At that point, the smart bet was that as Garvey’s problems receded from memory, his percentages would go up. It might take time but, yes, he would get elected in the late 1990s.

That didn’t happen. In the late 1990s, Garvey’s support deteriorated, and it never re-emerged. I think the reason goes hand-in-hand with what I just wrote about Jim Rice. The BBWAA began to scrutinize players rather than just relying on a few token statistics and powerful memories. Garvey’s Hall of Fame Monitor is 130, making him a very likely Hall of Famer. He won an MVP. He got 200 hits just about every year. He won four Gold Gloves. He was essentially a .300 hitter. He was a starter in a bunch of All-Star Games.

But his career on-base percentage was a blah .329. He never slugged .500 even for a single season. He didn’t reach any of the career milestones that would strengthen his case (no 3,000 hits, no 500 homers — or even 300 — no 500 doubles, etc.). He won those Gold Gloves, but his fielding is an open question. In other words, when you broke down Garvey’s career and compared it to Hall of Fame careers, he didn’t fare especially well. Garvey was a towering figure in baseball. That did not prove enough.

It now looks like Garvey will never get elected to the Hall of Fame. He came up in the expansion era ballot three years ago but got little to no support.

* * *


Bill’s prediction: Gary Carter and Al Oliver

Actual: Don Sutton

Catchers almost always do poorly on the first ballot. Johnny Bench is the only catcher ever to be elected on the first ballot. Yogi Berra did not get elected on his first ballot if you can believe that.

Some Hall of Fame catchers first ballot percentages:

Yogi Berra: 67.2 percent
Carlton Fisk: 66.4 percent
Mike Piazza: 57.8 percent
Roy Campanella: 57.2 percent
Gary Carter: 42.3 percent
Bill Dickey: 32.2 percent

Ivan Rodriguez has what would have once been considered a slam dunk case. He leads catchers in a bunch of offensive categories — games, hits, doubles, runs and so on — and he won a billion Gold Gloves. But there is some PED smog clouding up his career and, more off, catchers just don’t get elected on their first ballot. It doesn’t bode well for Ivan Rodriguez next year.

Al Oliver was a lifetime .300 hitter with more than 2,700 hits and 500 doubles in his career. His Hall of Fame Monitor registers at 116, which is why Bill must have thought Oliver would get another Hall of Fame look. But the reality is that Oliver had no chance for the Hall. He’d come up on the ballot in 1991, and he garnered only 4.3 percent of the vote. He has not gotten another glance since then on any of the Veteran’s Committee ballots.

I don’t think Oliver is quite a Hall of Famer, but his career has been dramatically underappreciated. His Hall of Fame case, in my view, is quite a bit better than Garvey’s, using just one example.

* * *


Bill’s prediction: Nolan Ryan and George Brett

Actual: Nolan Ryan, George Brett, and Robin Yount.

Nailed it.

* * *


Bill’s prediction: Robin Yount and Carlton Fisk

Actual: Carlton Fisk and Tony Perez

The Monitor did not forecast the election of Tony Perez; he scores only an 81. This is because Perez did not hit .300 much, he did not win an MVP, he lacked some of the career milestone statistics.

But looking at Perez a bit more closely helps explain why the Monitor works so well. The Monitor awards players points for being on great teams.

“If the player was a regular on a championship team,” Bill wrote, “award him:

  • 6 points if he was the shortstop or catcher
  • 5 points if he was the second baseman or center fielder
  • 3 points if he was the third baseman
  • 2 points if he played left field or right
  • 1 point if he was the first baseman.

Prime position players on league championship teams and division winners also earn points.

Well, Perez played on numerous championship teams — two World Series winners, five pennant winners — but he didn’t get many points for that because he played first base. The theory is that writers view shortstops as more integral to championship teams than first basemen, and it’s a sound theory.

But Perez is an exception to that rule. First base or not, the writers saw Perez as a leader on those Big Red Machine teams. And the writers were dead on — Perez was the guy everyone admired. The writers gave Perez all the championship points he would have gotten as a shortstop, and that pushed him over the top.

* * *


Predictions: Andre Dawson and Dave Winfield

Actual: Dave Winfield and Kirby Puckett

Pretty good guesswork on Bill’s part predicting when Winfield would retire. Bill also predicted that Puckett would get elected, but he did not foresee that Kirby’s career would end abruptly when he lost vision in his right eye.

Dawson did not get on the ballot until the next year. He was not a first-ballot inductee as the Monitor suggested. Dawson languished on the ballot for a few years before getting elected in 2010.

* * *


Predictions: Eddie Murray and Ozzie Smith

Actual: Ozzie Smith

Eddie Murray stuck around one year longer than Bill predicted.

* * *


Predictions: Dave Parker and Jim Kaat

Actual: Eddie Murray and Gary Carter

Bill saw a down year in 2003. He thought Murray and Carter would be elected, and that would give the BBWAA a chance to elect more marginal candidates Parker and Kaat. This is something we often miss about the Hall of Fame; when a player gets close but does not get elected, it can have an effect on future players. On the current ballot, for instance, Curt Schilling is stuck waiting for some of the top players — Tim Raines, Jeff Bagwell, Trevor Hoffman — to clear.

Dave Parker, like Garvey, lost support over time. He was at 25 percent in his second year but by 2003 he had dropped all the way to 10 percent and his Hall of Fame quest was over. A narrative built around Parker that he blew his Hall of Fame chances when he got lost in drugs and weight issues. Once a narrative builds about anything, it is very hard to change.

Jim Kaat was a great pitcher with terrible timing. For instance, he never won the Cy Young Award. He would have won it for sure in 1966 — heck, he finished fifth in the American League MVP voting — but that was the LAST YEAR that the AL did not award its own Cy Young.*

*From 1956 to 1966, there was just one overall Cy Young winner. And in 1966, that award was obviously and unanimously going to Sandy Koufax.

Kaat won 283 games, which is a lot. In 1980, he was 11th on the modern baseball wins list and the nine retired players in front of him were all in the Hall of Fame. He then watched as an unprecedented run of 300-game winners — Gaylord Perry, Steve Carlton, Tom Seaver, Don Sutton, Phil Niekro — all raced by him

Kaat won 16 Gold Glove Awards at a position where nobody cares about Gold Glove Awards.

And so on. When you take in Kaat’s entire career, yes, he’s a borderline candidate. But with just a little bit of luck, he’d have been elected.

* * *


Predictions: Dennis Eckersley and Ted Simmons

Actual: Dennis Eckersley and Paul Molitor

Another great prediction by Bill on Dennis Eckersley. Bill was two years early on Molitor, who just kept going and going; Molitor played through age 41.

Simmons has a fascinating Hall of Fame case that, in my mind, was crushed by what you might call the Sham factor. How good a horse was Sham? He ran a record-breaking time in winning the Santa Anita Derby as a three-year-old. He then finished second to Secretariat at the Kentucky Derby even though he cracked his head at the starting gate, losing two teeth. He finished second to Secretariat at the Preakness. He was the horse that tried to stay with Secretariat in the early part of the Belmont only to fade away.

But if there had been no Secretariat, would Sham have won the Triple Crown in 1973? Did you know that Sham — like Secretariat — had a heart roughly twice the size of a normal thoroughbred?

What does this have to do with Ted Simmons? He has the second-most hits for catchers in baseball history, behind only Ivan Rodriguez. He’s also second in doubles. He hit 248 homers in his career. He had the same career on-base percentage as Yogi Berra, and it was better than Carlton Fisk, Gary Carter or Ivan Rodriguez.

So why did he get just 3.7 percent of the vote before falling off the ballot in 1994? His 124 Hall of Fame Monitor predicts him as a sure Hall of Famer. He seems to hit all the marks. Why has he not come up in any of the expansion era ballots? Why have so few taken up his cause?

The most logical answer is that Simmons’ defense was below average. He had that reputation, but it’s hard to say that it’s a fair one.  He did have some high passed ball numbers, especially early in his career. But he was about average throwing out base stealers, he was athletic, and he caught a Cy Young winner (assuming you count Pete Vuckovich).

I think his problem is not defense but Shamness. There were three legendary great catchers during Simmons’ era: Johnny Bench; Carlton Fisk and Gary Carter. All three were better than Simmons. Then again, all three were better than just about every catcher in Major League history.

I suspect people couldn’t get their arms around the idea that there was a FOURTH catcher in the same period with a real Hall of Fame case. But that’s how it sometimes goes: We get clusters. We got four of the ten greatest starting pitchers in baseball history in the 1990s and none in the 1980s. There just happened to be four great catchers at one time. Simmons happened the be the fourth of four and, like Andy Murray, that’s not where you want to be.

* * *


Predictions: Wade Boggs and Cal Ripken

Actual: Wade Boggs and Ryne Sandberg

Bill was just a little early on Ripken and a little late on Sandberg; he did not see Sandberg going in until 2010.

* * *


Predictions: Rickey Henderson and Paul Molitor

Actual: Bruce Sutter

The Hall of Fame Monitor, like many of us, has no idea why Bruce Sutter was elected to the Hall of Fame. The Hall of Fame Monitor does have Lee Smith as a surefire Hall of Famer (127) because he had so many saves, but it has Bruce Sutter well shy of election (79).

I still find the Bruce Sutter election to be one of the most bizarre in recent BBWAA history. Look, Sutter was a fantastic reliever, but his vote is so out of line with the rest of the BBWAA’s voting record. Dan Quisenberry has an almost identical career value, and he got 18 total votes.

* * *


Predictions: Tony Gwynn and Roger Clemens

Actual: Tony Gwynn and Cal Ripken

Well, this is pretty telling: Bill predicted Clemens would be eligible for election in 2007. He wasn’t actually eligible until 2013, six years later. Clemens had an unprecedented run at the end of his career for all the reasons that you will have strong feelings about.

Even without that run, though, it was obvious that Clemens was a first-ballot Hall of Famer.

* * *


Predictions: Kirby Puckett and Dale Murphy

Actual: Goose Gossage

Bill predicted Gossage would go into the Hall, but not until 2014.

Was Dale Murphy as good a baseball player as Jim Rice? They had almost the same number of plate appearances in the big leagues: 9,041 for Murphy, 9,058 for Rice.

Rice had much better rate statistics, a higher OPS+, more doubles, and triples.

Murphy had a few more home runs, 100 more stolen bases, five Gold Gloves to zero and a higher career win probability added.

Both relied quite a bit on their home park for offensive success.

In their day, I would say that Murphy probably had an edge in reputation. There was a period of three or four years when the consensus considered Murphy the best player in baseball. He probably wasn’t the best, not in a league with Rickey Henderson and Mike Schmidt and so on, but he had the reputation. Rice was feared and admired but you never really heard him called the best player in baseball.

Then, what is reputation worth? By WAR, Murphy’s top eight seasons are each better than Rice’s top eight seasons, though the difference is often minuscule. After season nine, Murphy falls — his career essentially ended after age 32.

I think Murphy’s Hall of Fame case should have been every bit as compelling as Jim Rice’s. But it wasn’t. Maybe people could not forget the image of Murphy’s sad final days (Rice retired fairly young). Maybe Murphy’s lousy teams hurt him. Whatever the reason, Rice kept growing bigger in people’s minds. And Murphy, a great player and person, grew smaller.

* * *


Predictions: Jack Morris and Lee Smith

Actual: Rickey Henderson and Jim Rice

Again, Bill saw a lull coming having predicted that Rice and Henderson would have been elected years earlier. Morris and Smith both got 44 percent of the vote but neither quite built up to 75 percent.

* * *


Predictions: Tim Raines and Ryne Sandberg

Actual: Andre Dawson

Here, we often compare Tim Raines and Tony Gwynn because they were outfielders and contemporaries and similar in value, though not in style. But what about comparing Raines and Sandberg?

They were similar talents offensively. Both could run — Raines was faster. Both had some power — Sandberg was stronger. Overall, though, Raines was a substantially better hitter. He had 1,000 more plate appearances and had a 40-point advantage in on-base percentage. Raines created about 300 more runs over their careers.

Sandberg, though, was a second baseman and terrific one, and this made a big perception difference. Sandberg could not match Raines as a hitter, and no one could match Raines as a baserunner. But Sandberg played a much more important defensive position and played it beautifully.

The question is: Could Sandberg’s defense make up THREE HUNDRED RUNS? People will agree and disagree on that one. Sandberg cruised into the Hall of Fame three years into his time on the ballot. Raines is coming upon his last chance next year.

* * *


Predictions: Barry Bonds and Joe Carter

Actual: Roberto Alomar and Bert Blyleven

This is where we get to the fun predictions, the ones Bill was guessing about players very early in their careers. Barry Bonds was just 29 years old when Bill made this prediction, but this wasn’t hard: Bonds had already won three MVP awards.

Joe Carter, meanwhile, was 34 and coming off his eighth 100 RBI season in nine years. The RBIs told his story. Carter was a .263 hitter at the time with a .309 on-base percentage. He was not a great fielder. But he was good for 30 homers and 100 RBIs just about every year, and he had his time as a stolen base threat, and there was a strong feeling he would just keep compiling those numbers and get himself elected. I can recall hearing the phrase “future Hall of Famer” when referring to Joe Carter.

It didn’t work out that way. His career petered out, and he got just 3.8 percent of the vote his one year on the ballot.

Bill did predict that Alomar would be elected to the Hall of Fame (a few years later). The one player that Bill missed in this exercise was Bert Blyleven; I’m not sure why. I will have to ask him. The Hall of Fame monitor has Blyleven at 120, which is pretty solid Hall of Fame territory, Blyleven had 3,000 Ks and more than 280 wins. Bill put Kaat on his list but not Blyleven. I think it was probably just an oversight. I’ve spent way more time on this list, I’m sure, than Bill did.

* * *


Predictions: Brett Butler and David Cone

Actual: Barry Larkin

Bill and I are both avowed Brett Butler fans; we just love the way the guy played. I suspect Bill put him on here for fun. Butler was coming off a terrific 1994 season he hit .314/.411/.446 with a league-leading nine triples and 79 runs scored in just 111 games. He was 37 but with 2,089 hits, it did not seem beyond the realm of possibility that he could put together two or three more good seasons and get his hit total past 2,500 and maybe close in on 1,500 runs. As is, Butler finished with a higher career WAR than Jim Rice or Dale Murphy.

Barry Larkin was barely starting when Bill put this book together.

* * *


Predictions: Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker

Actual: Nobody

How much better would it have been if the BBWAA in 2013, instead of electing nobody, had elected Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker?

* * *


Predictions: Goose Gossage and Don Mattingly

Actual: Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and Frank Thomas

Bill foresaw the election of Greg Maddux and Thomas, even though it was very early in their careers. Gossage was elected earlier than Bill expected.

Mattingly represents the 8,000 plate appearance curse. There have been only six players since World War II elected with fewer than 8,000 plate appearances. Three were Negro Leaguers: Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, and Larry Doby.

The others: Ralph Kiner (who led the league in homer his first seven years); Kirby Puckett (who had his career shortened by an eye injury); Mike Piazza (who was a catcher).

We just saw the 8,000 plate appearance curse hurt Jim Edmonds — he has a viable Hall of Fame argument but he didn’t even get 5% of the vote. Why? He had 7,980 plate appearances.  Dick Allen, Minnie Minoso, Tony Oliva, Mark McGwire, Curt Flood, Fred Lynn, Nomar Garciaparra and Mattingly all had fewer than 8,000 PAs. They all played at a Hall of Fame level but, the voters say, not for quite long enough.

* * *


Predictions: Jack McDowell and Greg Maddux

Actual: Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, John Smoltz and Craig Biggio

It would have been pretty impressive if Bill had predicted any of those four who were elected. Johnson had turned 31 years old, and he was 81-62 with a 3.70 ERA when the book was written. He had not yet won any of his five Cy Young Awards (though he did lead the league in strikeouts for three straight years).

Pedro was 22 years old and had only made 26 career starts.

Smoltz was a three-time All-Star, but his career won-loss record was just 78-75, and he was coming off his worst season.

Biggio was coming off his first terrific season, where he led the league in doubles and stolen bases and won a Gold Glove. Bill would later become Biggio’s most vocal supporter.

Bill’s pick of Jack McDowell didn’t exactly pan out — he got four votes — but at the time of the book’s publishing, McDowell wasn’t a bad bet. He had won a Cy Young, finished second in another, he was 28 years old and had 91 victories. As it turned out, he only had one more good season.

* * *


Predictions: Fred McGriff and Dwight Gooden

Actual: Ken Griffey and Mike Piazza

Bill did predict Griffey’s election to the Hall, but not until 2018. He had a shot to pick Piazza, but it would have been an amazing guess. Piazza won rookie of the year in 1993 and hit .319 with 24 homers in 1994.

I’ve written enough about Fred McGriff, I suppose, but Gooden represents an interesting question. In the gigantic Hall of Fame post I have coming up (like this one isn’t big enough), I explore different levels of Hall of Fame stardom. Let’s say, for argument’s sake, that Dwight Gooden in 1985 had one of the five greatest seasons in modern baseball history. By WAR, this is true:

1. Walter Johnson, 1913 (16.0 WAR)

Johnson had all-time great seasons in 1912, 1914, 1915, etc.

2. Babe Ruth, 1923 (14.1 WAR)

Ruth had numerous other all-time great seasons, as everyone knows.

3. Dwight Gooden, 1985 (13.2 WAR)

His second-best WAR season, his rookie season, was less than half as good (5.5 WAR). And he never came all that close to having THAT good a season again.

4. Pete Alexander, 1920 (12.8 WAR)

Grover Cleveland Alexander had a movie made about him starring Ronald Reagan, giving him the ultimate trivia question: Name the only pitcher named for a U.S. President who was played by another one in the movies.

5. Cy Young, 1901 (12.6 WAR)

Did you know that Cy Young never won a Cy Young Award?

6. Steve Carlton, 1972 (12.5 WAR)

About as good in 1980, had five other great years. You know you’re good when people call a baseball pitcher “Lefty,” and they mean you.

7. Carl Yastrzemski, 1967 (12.4 WAR)

Had a 10 WAR season the very next year.

8. Roger Clemens, 1997 (12.2 WAR)

Few think that 1997 was even his best season.

9. Ed Walsh, 1912 (12.2 WAR)

Deadball Era pitchers threw a lot of innings. This year, Walsh threw 393 innings. He had two seasons where he threw more than 400.

10.  Rogers Hornsby, 1924 (12.1 WAR)

Hit .400 the very next year; Hornsby had six 10 WAR seasons.

The question here is: Should that ONE SEASON be enough to elect Gooden to the Hall of Fame? As you can see, it’s a unique situation. All-time great players had other all-time great seasons. But Gooden was not an all-time great player. He just was for one year. Is that enough? We’ll get into that more in our next installment.

* * *


Bill’s Prediction: Frank Thomas and Ruben Sierra

My prediction: Tim Raines, Jeff Bagwell, and Trevor Hoffman

Ruben Sierra? Well, he was a bold pick in 1994. Sierra was still 28 years old, and he had more than 1,400 career hits, which is more than Derek Jeter would have at the same age. Sierra also had 200 home runs, which is about as many as Barry Bonds had through age 28.

Unfortunately, Sierra never had even a passable season after age 28. He had negative WAR seasons every year but one.

* * *


Bill’s Prediction: Ken Griffey Jr. and Roberto Alomar

My prediction: Chipper Jones and Curt Schilling

I have to believe this Schilling madness will end sooner rather than later.

* * *


Bill’s prediction: Jeff Bagwell and Juan Gonzalez

My prediction: Mariano Rivera, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Jim Thome, Ivan Rodriguez, Mike Mussina and Edgar Martinez.

Well, a guy can dream, can’t he?

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    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.”

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    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.

    * * *

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    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.”

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    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.

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    “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.”

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    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?

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    “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?