Joe Posnanski

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, NBCSports.com, 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.”

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    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, NBCSports.com 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, NBCSports.com 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, NBCSports.com 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, NBCSports.com 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, NBCSports.com 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?

    Who’s Next?

    CHARLOTTE — The first thing to remember is: No one saw this coming. Not THIS. Stock-car racing certainly had a passionate following in America, but it was also a concentrated following. As late as 1992, the NASCAR Winston Cup Series had 29 races. Twenty of them were south of the Mason-Dixon line. Stock car racin’ was a southern thing, like sweet tea and restaurant menus where mac and cheese is listed as a vegetable.

    Sure, there was ambition to grow. In the 1980s, the series expanded west to Phoenix, brought racing back to Watkins Glen in New York (State, not City — it’s 260 miles from Manhattan) and so on. The Daytona 500 had made its way onto the American sports calendar, finding its place alongside the Kentucky Derby and Indianapolis 500. Ronald Reagan proved to be a fan as President, and he was there at the Firecracker 400 in 1984 for Richard Petty’s 200th and final victory.

    In 1990, Tom Cruise — the biggest movie star in the world at the time — starred in a huge-budget movie about NASCAR, “Days of Thunder.” The movie more or less tanked (though Quentin Tarantino has called it a personal favorite), but even a Tom Cruise bomb reaches a lot of people.

    So, yes, NASCAR was doing pretty well, entertaining its most intense audience, growing that audience slowly but surely. There was a sense among many inside NASCAR that the sport — loud, dangerous, intense — could play in other parts of the country. But everyone was realistic about NASCAR’s place in the big American sports landscape. In 1993, the sport added a race in New Hampshire. A year later, it added one in Indianapolis. Slow but sure.

    And then … the whole thing just took off in a blindingly fast way that no one saw coming.

    Multitudes of books have been written about the many reasons NASCAR exploded in popularity, though the most compelling of those reasons for me has always been one name: Jeff Gordon. He was the chemical that sparked the reaction. It would be hard to recreate now the impact Gordon had in the NASCAR world — it was overwhelming. He was this average-looking guy from California and Indiana, clean cut with a bit of a squeak in his voice, the sort of person you might talk with about getting an umbrella policy on your home. He liked hip-hop rather than country music and seemed more interested in going to New York than going hunting or fishing.

    Only, he drove a car like the devil himself.

    That blew people’s minds. The sport already had its archetypal hero, Dale Earnhardt, a North Carolina boy whose roots in racing trailed back to the very beginning, to his father Ralph, who worked in a cotton mill during the week and raced on the dirt on weekends. Ralph died of a heart attack in his garage, working on his car, and Dale Sr. raced with that same sensibility. He would run you off the track if you got in his way — or even if you didn’t and he was just in an ornery mood.

    Now, here was the kid, no Southern racing roots, no Southern core, driving around in a Dupont car that looked liked a RAINBOW, for crying out loud. But the kid kept winning races and championships. He held his own with the Intimidator (Dale Sr.’s well-earned nickname) himself. And then he was hosting Saturday Night Live. It was all irresistible.

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    And it was unexpected. The sport grew so fast, it was hard to keep up. New tracks were built all over America — Texas, Kansas City, Las Vegas, Chicago, Miami. New stars kept emerging — the fierce Tony Stewart, the All-American kid Jimmie Johnson, the son Dale Earnhardt Jr. And the television ratings kept going up, attendance kept going up, businesses lined up to be a part of the phenomenon; it was all NASCAR could do just to keep up with the demand, the excitement, the wonder of it all.

    “My perception,” says Jill Gregory, the Chief Marketing Officer at NASCAR, “is that nobody was looking for that to happen. But when it did happen, it was like, ‘Wow. We needed this.’”

    Here we are now, some 20 or 25 years into the NASCAR explosion, and it’s an interesting time for the sport. Jeff Gordon has retired and Tony Stewart is about to follow him. Dale Jr. intends to compete again, but he has not raced since July because of concussion symptoms, and at 42 years old, realistically, he is not likely to race much longer. Jimmie Johnson seems to be back on top of his game, but he’s 41 and has admitted that the grueling NASCAR schedule becomes tougher the older he gets. Kevin Harvick, the 2014 champion, turns 41 in December.

    Yes, of course, there are some drivers ready to take their place. Some veteran drivers like former champions Brad Keselowski (age 32) and Kyle Busch (31) are still in the primes of their careers. Younger drivers like Joey Logano and Austin Dillon, both 26, along with 24-year-old Kyle Larson, are showing signs of coming into their own.

    Chase Elliott — who many see as the sport’s future champion — made the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup as a rookie this year.

    But, NASCAR is in a lull. Ratings are stagnant. Attendance is down. There are as many reasons for this as there were for stock car racing’s explosion in the first place, and you can bet that people in NASCAR are at this very moment working on every single one of them. NASCAR’s like that. And one thing that everyone in and around the sport is looking for is the next big star, the driver who, like Gordon, can again capture the attention and imagination of everyone.

    “The Jeff Gordon-Dale Sr. interaction and rivalry … we were in position to benefit from that,” Gregory says. She smiles and shrugs. “You can’t always rely on that.”

    * * *

    Alon Day is from Israel. He’s 24. He hopes to become a NASCAR driver.

    “First of all,” Alon Day is saying, “there is absolutely no motorsports here. At all. We have only go karts. This is the only thing you have. It makes me laugh. We have only desert and some camels and go karts.”

    Day is part of a program called “NASCAR Next” which, as the name suggests, is a company-wide effort to identify and develop future stars of the sport.

    “When I was 17,” he says, “I won the Asian (Formula Renault Challenge). It was a pretty big deal for a guy from Israel to win an international championship. Everyone knew who I was here. We don’t get a lot of sports here. If someone has success, everybody in Israel knows about it. Basketball is one of the only sports we’re good at, you know, along with wars and weapons.

    “So when I went into the army — you know everyone here must go to the army — I was able to enter the athlete program. So I didn’t have to live on the base. I had the privilege to go home, train in the gym, work in simulators. Every day I would go to the base, go from 8-5, then go home and train.”

    “How many people were in the racing program in the Israeli army?” I ask him.

    “Only me,” he says. “Now, I think there are two or three. I put racing on the map.”

    NASCAR is on the lookout for young drivers with talent, of course, but they also are looking for drivers with a story, with a spark, with an ability to reach both fans and businesses. That’s the thing about NASCAR. It isn’t enough to just drive fast.

    “Wait, let me tell you how I got into NASCAR,” Day says. “I was into endurance driving. In 2015, in March, I had some sponsor issues and stuff. I thought about taking a year break. I really thought about it. Then suddenly, out of nowhere, I get an email to take a test in the NASCAR Euro Series.

    “Without racing, I felt like I was going to die. It was the lowest point of my career. So, yeah, of course I jumped at the opportunity. And it went perfect. I couldn’t have asked for anything better. I had never driven a stock car before, but it’s like I was born to be in one. I was vice champion in the Euro Series. I won three times. I was rookie of the year. I was the most popular driver. It was a dream.”

    Now, he wants more. He was given a chance to drive in the XFINITY Series this year — sort of the Triple-A of NASCAR — and finished 13th at Mid-Ohio in his debut race. He’s looking for sponsors, hoping to get a full-time ride in the Trucks Series or XFINITY and and work his way into the big time. He’s exuberant and funny and Israeli; he certainly would be unlike anyone to ever drive in NASCAR.

    “We know we have a very strong core fan base base, and they’re very invested in all of our national series on a weekly basis,” Gregory says. “But we also know that if we want to continue to grow, we have to grow that fan bases. We have to get younger. We have to get more diverse.”

    “I see myself as diversity!” Day says. “I mean, come on. You have this very cool, diverse guy from Israel. You have the American-Israeli relationship. It’s very cool, right?”

    * * *

    NASCAR’s search for the next star is a fascinating one because, on one level, it sounds very much like the scouting and development that is done in every sport. But it’s also very different.

    In baseball, let’s say you want to develop a left-handed reliever. Coaches will work with him (or her — the day’s coming) on delivery, various pitches, positioning, holding runners on, the mental approach to facing hitters, etc. It would be a baseball development with perhaps a few side lessons about how to act in public and cliches to give to the media.

    In NASCAR, it’s a different journey. To become a Sprint Cup driver means being a world-class driver with supernatural hand-eye coordination, intense nerve and a near-magical sense of your surroundings. That’s first and foremost. But it isn’t enough.

    No, to make it to the top also means being a conduit for your sponsors (who are spending millions on your racing career), a promoter of the sport in the press and a relatable icon to your fans. The NASCAR Next program, for instance, doesn’t spend much time at all on the track. Instead they try to help potential stars, like Day, develop their stories, help them meet potential sponsors, give them some media training and talk to them about their social media plan.

    “I think that in any research we’ve done — core fan, casual fan, sports fan that might not be that interested in motorsports — performance is No. 1,” Gregory says. “You’ve got to be able to drive the race car and be competitive. After that, though, it’s a whole variety of things. What we’re doing is trying to find as much talent as we can and then pull out what some of their skill sets might be off the track. Then figure out how to showcase that.”

    There are many people, of course, who think that NASCAR spends way too much time worrying about stuff off the track. Take Humpy Wheeler, one of the greatest promoters in the history of NASCAR and one of the all-time great guys. Humpy recently wrote a letter to The Charlotte Observer about the challenges within NASCAR, and it included this passage:

    “The American sporting public lives on a diet of big things whether it is a 350-pound NFL lineman or a 3,400-pound stock car, high drama, exciting personalities, sudden excitement and simplicity. Unfortunately, because of the standards of the sponsors, we are missing a lot of fine drivers who run on the rough and tumble short tracks in the rural areas because they have bad teeth, talk wrong, don’t know how to hold a fork and their dress of the day is a pair of well-worn jeans and a battered T-shirt and don’t forget their tattoos.”

    This, unquestionably, taps into one of the big complaints about NASCAR — that it has too eagerly moved away from its moonshine roots. There are many, many fans who like NASCAR as it was, as a Southern sport, as the sport of Richard Petty and Junior Johnson and the Allison brothers and Bill Elliott and the rest.

    But that might miss the bigger point: NASCAR is more than its moonshine roots now. It was a wildly-popular-but-still-niche sport then. It is a multi-billion industry now, and it is nationwide. There is room, there must be room, for the rough-and-tumble short track driver but to persuade Fortune 500 companies to invest, to keep the interest among the fans not only at the World’s Fastest Half-Mile in Bristol, Tenn., but also along the Miracle Mile in Vegas and the Magnificent Mile in Chicago, there needs to be room for groundbreakers.

    Meet Julia Landauer.

    * * *

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    If you think Alon Day has a weird NASCAR story, how about Landauer? She grew up in New York’s Upper West Side. She is the daughter of a doctor and a lawyer. You’re picturing it, right? She went to prestigious Stuyvesant High School, whose alumni have won four Nobel prizes, two Wolf Awards for mathematics, one Fields Medal and three Academy Awards. It is the school of Mets president Saul Katz, Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria and Falcons owner Arthur Blank.

    After that, Landauer went to Stanford, where she got a degree in Science, Technology and Society. There’s no real point or room to list off all the famous Stanford graduates but Google developers Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer, etc. are among them.

    While there, she appeared on “Survivor.”

    And she did all of this — all of it — with one dream in mind. Right. She wants to be a NASCAR driver.

    “Yeah, it’s different,” she says. “I went go karting and just fell in love with it.”

    In many ways, Landauer is the evolution of the new NASCAR. For one, NASCAR is the only major American sport where a woman — specifically, Danica Patrick — competes at the highest level directly against men. Her dream would be very different in any other sport.

    But, even more, Landauer has trained to become a NASCAR driver not only by honing her driving skills but by developing her brand, by working on her writing and communication skills, by broadening and refining her story and her reach. Her website is subtitled, “Redfining the Modern Racer.” She speaks nationally. She actively seeks being a role model, especially to young girls. She works on her camera skills.

    “And,” she adds, “I’m not afraid to knock on doors and start the conversation. I have a very clear sense of my messaging, my persona, my brand. I directly tie to New York City. I have the whole Silicon Valley connection with my tech degree. There are a lot of cool angles. Oh, and, yeah, I’m a woman too, and I want to become the first woman to win a race in one of NASCAR’s top three series. A lot of angles.”

    You can imagine that there are a lot of old school NASCAR fans who are tearing at their hair, thinking about how this is exactly what drives them crazy about the sport and shouting, “CAN SHE DRIVE A CAR OR NOT?”

    Well, a lot of people around racing say yes. She finished fourth in points as rookie in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West, one of the sport’s feeder series (“highest finishing female in history!” she writes on her website). In 2015, she was the first woman to win a NASCAR track championship in the Limited Late Model division at Motor Mile Speedway. Her confidence overflows.

    “I don’t have as much experience yet as some of my competitors,” she says. “But as far as being in the car and driving, no, I don’t have any doubts about my talent.”

    Landauer may or may not make it; there are only a few opportunities at the very top of the NASCAR pyramid and many, many drivers who are trying to get in. But it’s clear: The explosion of NASCAR opened things up not only to a much larger audience of fans, it opened up possibilities to a whole new kind of driver. Used to be you got to NASCAR driving on the dirt and hoping to be discovered. Now, it’s different.

    Of course, there is a balance for NASCAR, a tough balance, keeping the old-school fans engaged and passionate about the sport while finding and welcoming new fans, getting younger and more diverse but connecting to the past and the NASCAR base. It’s not easy.

    Well, no one really saw any of this coming 25 years ago.

    “We just want more and more people to connect to NASCAR,” Gregory says. “The more Danicas or Julias we have, the more young girls will connect to our sport and NASCAR driving as a possibility for them. The more Danny Suarezes (a Mexican driver who is performing well in the Xfinity Series), the more young people from Mexico — or from America with a Mexican heritage — will connect to our sport.

    “And of course we need to keep developing drivers who appeal to our core audience. The journey never ends. We have to keep opening more eyes to the excitement of our sport.”

    The Wonder of Game 7

    Some day, after the tears have dried and the hangover has lifted, after disbelief has transformed into nostalgia and the books have all been written, this might go down as the greatest baseball game ever played. It is much too soon for that now. There have been countless wonderful games in the grand history of this game — Carlton Fisk waving it fair, Jack Morris shutting them down, Billy Hatcher hitting the foul pole, Bill Mazeroski running happily through a throng of delirious fans, Salvador Perez pulling the ball past a diving third baseman, and a thousand more. For now, it is enough to say that this Game 7 belongs with those.

    But even now, in the misty aftermath of that four-hour-and-28-minute psychedelic trip that was Game 7 between the Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians, we can say this without hesitation: No game in the long history of this sport or perhaps any other inspired more people to shout (or text or tweet or whisper) the phrase, “Oh my God!” so many times.

    “Oh my God! Oh my God!” Jeff Garlin shouted in the seconds after the game ended. I know this because he sent me a video. Garlin is a comedian, a writer, an actor — The Goldbergs, Curb Your Enthusiasm, the captain from Wall-E, etc. — but more so, he is a Chicago Cubs fan. The Cubs have been his joy and his pain all 54 years of his life. For our purposes here, he stands in for millions of others who lived and died Cubs baseball over the last 108 years.

    “Oh my God! Oh my God!” he shouted as he stood awestruck in front of his television.

    “Jeff,” his wife Marla said. “Stop.”

    “I can’t!” Jeff shouted. “Oh my God! Oh my God! Oh my God! Oh my God!”

    How many times did OMG — in any and all of its forms — come up on this night? The first batter of the game, Chicago’s Dexter Fowler, homered to center field. The last batter of the game, some time early the next morning, was a player named Michael Martinez, a 34-year-old journeyman with a .197 career batting average. How did we get from here to there? OMG.

    The thing that defined this World Series — other than sheer weight of the Cubs’ 108-year World Series drought facing up against Cleveland’s 68-year World Series drought — was the naked desperation on display. These two teams would do ANYTHING to win this series. Use the closer in the fifth inning? Yes. Start a hitter who had not faced major-league pitching for 200 days? You bet. Use the team’s best starting pitcher three times in nine days? Without hesitation. “The loser is nothing,” Prince Humperdinck says in The Princess Bride.

    And that desperation was what made Wednesday night’s game so marvelous and agonizing at the same time. Cleveland manager Terry Francona did start his ace, Corey Kluber, for the third time in nine days, and this time Kluber did not have it. The effects of a tired arm are not easily measured; it’s not something that always shows up in a fastball’s miles-per-hour reading. Kluber’s pitches did not fool Cubs hitters at all. In Game 1, he struck out eight Cubs batters in the first three innings with pitches that looked like balls but mutated into strikes and pitches that looked like strikes but then lunged out of the zone.

    None of that happened on Wednesday night. The cutter/slider thing he threw to Fowler was 92 mph, right at his normal speed, but the ball disobediently dove into the middle of the plate, and Fowler did not miss. That made it 1-0. Kluber stopped the damage there with three flyouts. But even that was a bad sign. Kluber is decidedly not a fly-ball pitcher.

    Cleveland tied the game in the third inning, as Kluber awkwardly maneuvered through the Cubs’ lineup. Then came the fourth inning. This is when the game produced its first goat — a likable 36-year-old outfielder on his sixth team named Rajai Davis. He was playing centerfield when Addison Russell hit a 175-foot fly ball. The distance is important because, at the time, Chicago’s Kris Bryant was on third base, and 175 feet is generally not deep enough for a runner to tag up and try to score.

    But Bryant did tag up and try to score. Davis seemed a bit stunned by this. He took an extra tick to release his throw. And that throw was high. Bryant slid in easily to give the Cubs the lead again.

    The next batter, Willson Contreras, hit a long flyball to center that bounced off the base of the wall. It was well-hit and so it is not clear whether Davis could have caught it under ideal circumstances. But that question never came up because Davis took a Magellan-like route around the Cape of Good Hope and did not come close to catching the ball. It was a double and it scored another run. That’s 3-1 Cubs.

    It goes without saying that we will hear from Rajai Davis again.

    The Cubs made it 4-1 in the fifth inning when Kluber left his cutter/slider thing up in the zone and the mercurial Javier Baez poked it the other way for a home run. Baez was the eye-candy of these playoffs. He was always doing something mind-blowing whether it was striking a cobra-quick tag on base-stealers or trying and failing to barehand catch a double-play flip, swinging at some pitch several miles outside of the strike zone or hitting the home run that seemed to seal Cleveland’s fate. The Cubs added another run against Cleveland super-weapon Andrew Miller to make it 5-1, and surely the ghosts of Chicago’s North Side could finally stop rattling their chains.

    Well, no, not quite. Cleveland scored two runs in the bottom of the inning on a Jon Lester wild pitch. It is a testament to the sheer volume of this game that we do not have the time to stop and linger on a wild pitch that scored two runs, but as Willy Wonka says, “We have so much time and so little to see. Wait a minute. Strike that. Reverse it.”

    In the sixth inning, David Ross hit a long home run to center field. David Ross. I suppose the best way to sum up the absurdity of Lester’s personal catcher hitting a home run in his last big-league game is to say that he became the oldest man, at 39 years and 228 days, to hit a homer in Game 7 of the World Series. He beat the record (by three whole days) of a guy known as Pops, Willie Stargell, whose homer in 1979 still breaks hearts in Baltimore all these years later. That made it 6-3. And that seemed to end things for sure.

    So, how many OMGs do we have already?

    * * *

    All right, let me interrupt very quickly to speak personally: The bottom of the eighth inning was one of the greatest sports moments of my life. I don’t say that as a writer. I say that as a Clevelander, as a lifelong Tribe fan who grew up idolizing Duane Kuiper, a second baseman who dived for every ground ball (including other people’s ground balls) and hit one glorious home run in his long career. I say that as a Clevelander who, until I was approaching 30 would have listed the greatest baseball moments of my lifetime as follows:

    1. Len Barker’s perfect game.

    2. Joe Charboneau’s rookie of the year season (when he hit 23 home runs and told stories of opening beer bottles with his eye sockets).

    3. Cleveland making the cover of Sports Illustrated in 1987 with the banner headline, “Believe It! Cleveland is the Best Team in the American League” (I did believe it; they were not. They lost 100 games).

    4. Jack Brohamer once playing catch with me.

    5. Seeing Buddy Bell hit a long home run live and in person.

    It’s not exactly a cavalcade of awesome, is it? After I got older, Cleveland did get very good, twice winning American League pennants with an all-time great lineup. But even that version of the Tribe fell short. Yes, the Cavaliers did break Cleveland’s championship drought in 2016, and it feels greedy to ask for more than that. But to see Cleveland’s baseball team win — that would be beyond words.

    * * *

    So, back to the bottom of the eighth, Cleveland was down three runs, two outs recorded, Chicago’s cyborg, Aroldis Chapman, in the game ready to throw 103 mph, and what hope is there really? Cleveland did have a runner on base, but they also had utility outfielder Brandon Guyer at the plate. Brandon Guyer basically excels at one thing: Getting hit by pitches. Who wants to watch a guy get hit by one of Chapman’s pitches?

    Only then, on a full count, Guyer laced a double into the gap, scoring a run and cutting the deficit to two.

    And up came: Rajai Davis. There was something interesting about Chapman — he wasn’t throwing 103 mph. Instead, his fastball was coming in at around 98 mph. This could have been exhaustion; Cubs manager Joe Maddon had somewhat inexplicably used Chapman the night before even though his team had a five-run lead at the time. It could have been nerves. It could have been just one of those things, but there is an ocean’s difference between a 103-mph fastball and a 98-mph fastball. The first is superhuman. The second is something major-league hitters see just about every night.

    Davis fouled off a fastball … and another … and another … and another. Davis is a slap hitter, a player who all his career has relied on ground balls and great speed. But he’s 36 years old now and he taught himself a new trick here toward the end of his career: How to turn on an inside fastball.

    Chapman threw him a 97-mph inside fastball.

    And Davis turned on it.

    And that was the happiest sports moment to actually happen IN Cleveland in at least a half-century.

    Davis’ home run off Chapman was such a perfect moment it did not feel real. My phone buzzed and buzzed and buzzed, text after text after text, and do you know what EVERY SINGLE ONE of those texts said? “Oh my God.” There was nothing else to say.

    As a Clevelander and as a storyteller, I’d like to leave it there, leave it at 6-6 in perpetuity, both teams winning their first championship in forever. But sports demand resolution, out or safe, touchdown or no, goal or save. So, we go on.

    The game went into extra innings, and the rains came, and the Cubs players apparently gathered around and regained their sense of purpose. They will go down as one of the greatest teams ever now — 103-game winners in the regular season, enders of a whole slew of Chicago curses and all that. They scored two runs in the top of the tenth, helped — I’m sad to say — by two intentional walks from manager Terry Francona.

    I loathe the intentional walk in all circumstances but particularly in these, when the game is on the line and the only goal is to use one of the sport’s loopholes to avoid facing the other team’s best hitters. Francona ordered Anthony Rizzo walked, and World Series MVP Ben Zobrist followed by rifling a ground ball past third base for a run-scoring double. After a second intentional walk, this one to Addison Russell, it was Chicago’s Miguel Montero who provided the single that scored Rizzo for the second run of the inning. That made it 8-6.

    Cleveland did put a scare in the Cubs in the bottom of the inning because it was that kind of game, but in the last it came down to Michael Martinez facing Cubs reliever Mike Montgomery, only 26 years old but someone who kicked around in the minors for eight years and was traded three times. The fact that the final out of this epic poem came down to Montgomery vs. Martinez tells you that this was truly a game of attrition.

    The temptation is to say this was a Series that neither team lost. Cleveland got to extra innings of a Game 7 even without their second and third starters — how far would the Cubs have gotten in these playoffs without Kyle Hendricks and Jake Arrieta? Then, the Cubs came back from down 3-1 with the panicked shrieks of Chicago howling in their ears. You want to say that this was a triumph for both teams, but we all know that isn’t true. The Cubs’ drought is over. Cleveland’s baseball drought limps on.

    Still, we had Game 7. This beautiful and boring and riveting and flawed game of baseball, invented by nobody and everybody, taught to children by Civil War soldiers, national pastime when America was ascending, symbol of hope for integration before Birmingham and “I Have A Dream,” this game of messy labor fights and various scandals but also of Henry Aaron and triples and hot dogs smeared with mustard, this game, even now, in the CGI world of 2016, this game can still grab us by the hearts.

    Martinez nubbed a ground ball to Kris Bryant who smiled as he fielded it and threw across the diamond for the Cubs’ championship. And Jeff Garlin, along with countless others across America, shouted “Oh my God!” Because it’s baseball.

    Fire and desire

    The story has been the hunger. This has not been the most artistic of World Series. Game 1 had the electricity of Opening Day. Game 3 was a minor classic, an old-fashioned 1-0 pitching duel with new-fashioned pitcher usage. Game 5 was tense and suspenseful and it came down to a pitching cyborg throwing 102 mph and overmatched hitters doing all they could to stay alive at the plate.

    But all in all, this once-in-a-century World Series between the Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians has not been notable for the baseball. It has been notable for the intense desperation. Players and teams obviously want to win the World Series every year. This year, though, absurd cliché or not, it feels like they want to win just a little more.

    Take Game 6, one the Chicago Cubs grabbed in the first inning and never surrendered. Chicago led the game 3-0 after a bizarre first inning where Cleveland center fielder Tyler Naquin and right fielder Lonnie Chisenhall both avoided a somewhat routine fly ball. Naquin, a rookie, seemed entirely spooked one night after Halloween — all night he ran around aimlessly, like someone only vaguely familiar with the duties of center field. He perfectly demonstrated the anxiety that crackles all around this series.

    Two innings later, it was 7-0. The key blow came after Cleveland starter Josh Tomlin was pulled — he had been valiant all of October but on three days rest and with marginal stuff to begin with, his pitches stopped fooling anybody — and Dan Otero came in for relief. He faced Chicago’s Addison Russell, a 22-year-old prodigy of a shortstop with the perfect Cubs name. Russell is a defensive wonder; offensively, he swings hard and for the fences. After Otero fell behind 2-0, he threw an 89-mph sinker that did not sink. Scouts call this sort of pitch “middle-middle.” Russell deposited it in the center-field stands, where it bounced in front of an exit sign, made its way onto the concourse and no doubt bought a hot dog.

    This was the Cubs’ night, start to finish. That happens sometimes in a Game 6. Two years ago, Kansas City beat San Francisco 10-0 in Game 6. In 2001, Arizona swamped the Yankees 15-2. Yes, sure, Cleveland occasionally made small comeback noises, but all night they never got within four runs, and Cleveland manager Terry Francona made clear from his moves that he was readying his ammunition for a Game 7.

    The Cubs used Aroldis Chapman anyway.

    No, it was more than that: Cubs manager Joe Maddon put in Chapman — one of the hardest-throwing pitchers in the long history of baseball — in the SEVENTH INNING of a game that he led by five runs. By win expectancy, the Cubs were 97-percent sure of winning. Maddon had an entire arsenal of pitchers who had solid years and certainly could put this game away. And, not incidentally, just two days earlier, Chapman had thrown more innings and pitches than at any point in his career. Also, yeah, Maddon might need a fully-charged Chapman for Game 7.

    Still: He went for Chapman. That’s the hunger and sense of desperation that has been on display all series. When Francona feels even the slightest twinge of doubt, he rushes in his own super-weapon, Andrew Miller. Starting pitchers get yanked the instant they inspire even the slightest spasm of uncertainty. Lineups get shuffled around. Hitters swing impossibly hard and at pitches barely in their field of vision. Fielders dive for balls that they know, in their hearts, they can’t reach.

    In Game 6, Cleveland’s magnificent young shortstop Francisco Lindor made two spectacular diving stops on ground balls. He had no chance of throwing out the batter on either one, but he threw the ball anyway because this has been that kind of series. Everyone tries to do too much. Everything feels just a little bit more important.

    Then, this is probably what we should expect from a once-in-a-century series between one team that has not won a World Series since Harry Truman was in office and another that has not won since Henry Ford built his first Model T. Every single thing that happens in this thing seems to trigger some connection to ancient times. When Cleveland’s Jason Kipnis hit a three-run homer in Game 4, it was mentioned to him that the last visiting player to hit a three-run homer in a World Series game at Wrigley Field was none other than Babe Ruth.

    “Wow,” Kipnis said, though the stat is both arcane and baffling. “Anytime you can be connected to Babe Ruth …”

    This is that kind of series. Everything points forward and backward at the same time.

    And now it is Game 7 — the most-anticipated Game 7 of our lifetimes, in many ways, and both teams have reasons to be hopeful. The Cubs have won the last two games and have have National League ERA leader Kyle Hendricks starting on full rest. Their two best hitters — Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo — appeared fully locked-in Tuesday. Bryant, the all-but-certain league MVP, crunched a room-service 77-mph curveball for a titanic homer that started the scoring; he proceeded to get four hits on the night. Rizzo ended the night with a blast of his own on a hanging changeup. Other than being on the road, it couldn’t be a much better setup.

    Then, Cleveland has its own reasons to believe. It’s pretty clear that the Cubs are a better baseball team than this beat-up version of the Tribe. The Cubs won 103 games this year and played about as well as any team in recent memory. Cleveland, meanwhile, is missing its best hitter and second-best starter (the third-best starter was too injured to start a single game all postseason; the fourth-best blew up his pinkie in a drone accident). This whole thing has been a magic carpet ride.

    And yet, here is the Tribe, playing Game 7 at home, with their best pitcher Corey Kluber — admittedly on short rest again — starting and with their super-bullpen fully rested and ready to pitch as many innings as necessary. It’s about as much as they could have hoped for when this series began.

    Game 7s tend to be a mixed bag. They can be classics, like two years ago when Madison Bumgarner took over or in 2001 when Arizona somehow got to Mariano Rivera or in 1991 when Jack Morris refused to yield. They can also be anticlimaxes, like in 2011 when the Cardinals breezed to victory after a circus-ride Game 6 or 1985 when the Cardinals melted down and Kansas City won 11-0. The pressure and anticipation of a Game 7 produces many different kinds of chemical reactions.

    But one thing is sure in this series: Both teams — and both managers — will sell out entirely to win. Francona will bring Andrew Miller into the game in the first inning if he feels the game slipping. The Cubs’ Javier Baez will swing at a rumor of a pitch in another state if he believes that he has a chance of driving in a run. Every bar in Chicago will be filled with folded hands and eyes pointed to heaven, and downtown Cleveland will be awash in prayer. It’s always like this in the World Series. This time, though, it’s just a little bit more.