How do you solve a problem like Dalkowski?

One July 10, 1962, a minor miracle happened — though only a few people witnessed it. That was the day that Andy Warhol unveiled his odd Campbell Soup Cans work of art, though that wasn’t the miracle. A company called Telstar launched into space the first privately owned satellite. That wasn’t the miracle either.

No, that day, a somewhat clunky and generally unimposing young man with thick glasses took the mound  for a minor-league baseball game in Elmira, N.Y. There were, by official count, 494 people in the stands.

By this point, everyone in the stands knew about the young man on the mound. He had, as they say, a reputation. He was dangerous. But something about him that day was different. He seemed calmer somehow. Which it to say: He did not throw a pitch 20 feet over the catcher’s head. He did not knock out an umpire with some crazy rising fastball. He did not throw a pitch through a wall. He simply … pitched. Every now and again, if people listened closely, they could hear something coming out of the Elmira dugout where manager Earl Weaver sat. It was the sound of someone whistling.

The young man pitched a five-hit shutout and — more to the point — he did not walk a single batter. When the game ended a reporter asked what he had done differently. Steve Dalkowski shrugged.

“I wish I knew,” he said.

* * *

There are mythical figures in baseball. Then there’s Dalkowski. His talent, as Ernest Hemingway once wrote of his rival and friend F. Scott Fitzgerald, was as natural as the pattern that was made by the dust on a butterfly’s wings. But talent is a fickle gift, one that can destroy as easily as it can inspire. Dalkowski’s talent was to throw a baseball harder than any man who ever lived.

Dalkowski did not train to throw a baseball hard. It just flowed from him, like a pleasant singing voice or an ability to run fast. Dalkowski could also run fast; he was better known for football at first. He played quarterback, halfback and defensive back for a New Britain, Conn. high school team that won back-to-back state titles. He was named an honorable mention high school All-American and, in another time and place, he might have followed that talent. But his father loved baseball. And by ninth grade, Steve Dalkowski already threw a fastball that his junior high coach would tell the Baltimore Sun, “made a loud buzzing sound.”

He never looked the part. Dalkowski stood 5-foot-11, and teammates thought there was something lumpy about the way he moved. Somehow, though, a baseball jumped from his hand. And unlike most hard fastballs, Dalkowski’s jerked and leaped and dived. There’s a scene in the movie Apollo 13 where James Lovell and the guys are trying to get their spacecraft back on course by firing up an engine and flying blind. The capsule twists and turns and is almost beyond control. That was Dalkowski’s fastball. No hitter could handle it. But Dalkowski could not handle it either.

As a senior in high school, he pitched a no-hitter where he did not allow a single run. That might not sound like much of an achievement — most no-hitters are also shutouts — but Dalkowski walked EIGHTEEN batters in the game. He also struck out 18. If that sounds familiar, well, here’s why:

Skip: He walked 18.

Larry: A new league record!

Skip: He struck out 18.

Larry: Another new league record. … In addition, he hit the sportswriters, the public address announcer, the Bull Mascot — twice. Also new league records. But Joe, this guy’s got some serious (bleep).

Yes, Steve Dalkowski was the inspiration for “Bull Durham” character Nuke Laloosh. And he did have some serious (bleep). That 18-strikeout, 18-walk classic was one of just two no-hitters he threw in high school. He struck out 24 in another game. He faced hitter after hitter who would stand outside the batter’s box out of sheer terror.

Dalkowski did this with one pitch — he did not even try throwing breaking balls then. In late 1956, Baltimore Orioles scout Beauty McGowan signed him for $4,000, the maximum signing bonus allowed by baseball at the time. Beauty quietly paid Dalkowski another $12,000 and bought him a new car, but that was a deal between gentlemen.

The Orioles then sent Dalkowski to Kingsport for what they expected to be a glorious baseball career. Yes, of course, they knew all about his control problems but they had no doubt that those could be conquered with a little training and work. Oh, that fastball.

* * *

At the same time that the Orioles were launching Steve Dalkowski’s baseball career, a young man from St. Louis named Earl Weaver was angrily coming to grips with the realization that his was dying. When Weaver was young, his father had a dry cleaning business and his customers included both St. Louis baseball teams. Young Earl was smitten by the game from the first time he entered a big league clubhouse. He knew he would become a Major League ballplayer. He could see no other future.

Trouble was, Earl Weaver just wasn’t a good enough baseball player. He played year after year of minor league ball on guile and smarts and a sort of baseball hunger that frightened people. But such things, no matter how piercing, cannot overcome a lack of talent. And Earl Weaver lacked talent. He couldn’t run. He couldn’t throw. He was too small.

And so Earl Weaver began to rage against talent. Why wasn’t he born with it? Why were so many knuckleheads who barely gave the game a second glance granted size and speed and strength and glorious arms? These were questions Earl Waver never answered. They lit an inextinguishable fire inside.

“I had to admit to myself,” Weaver would say later in life, “that I wasn’t good enough. It broke my heart.”

* * *

On Independence Day 1957, the great pitcher Hal Newhouser — then working for the Baltimore Orioles — settled into his seat in Kingsport, Tenn., to watch Dalkowski for the first time. Newhouser had been a spectacular left-handed power pitcher in the 1940s (he won back-to-back MVP awards) and he was looking forward to seeing the phenom he’d heard so much about. Only that day he saw something he’d never quite seen before.

Dalkowski gave up just three hits and struck out 15. The power of those pitches was otherworldly. Hitters barely stood a chance … that is, if they wanted to hit the ball. But they did not need to hit the ball. Twelve hitters walked that day and — this, like so many Dalkowski statistics, will look like a misprint — they stole 21 bases. TWENTY-ONE. Kingsport lost. And Newhouser was left wondering what the heck the Orioles had here.

You know the story of the cartoon frog, the one that can sing and dance. People find that frog in a box, see it sing and dance, and see fame and fortune in their future. What could possibly be more valuable than a singing and dancing frog? Trouble is, the frog only sings when it wants to sing.

That frog was Steve Dalkowski’s fastball. When it sang, there was never a pitch like it. But it so rarely sang. In an August game, Dalkowski struck out 11 and did not allow a hit for five innings. He then walked five straight batters, threw two wild pitches and Kingsport lost. Next time out, he walked 21 — blackjack — threw six wild pitches and his catcher had six passed balls. Kingsport lost. One game that year, Dalkowski struck out an astonishing 24 batters. He also walked 18. Kingsport lost.

When that first season ended, Dalkowski’s stat-line defied imagination. He had pitched 62 innings. He allowed just 22 hits, barely three per nine innings. He struck out 121 — almost two per inning. But he still went 1-8 with an 8.13 ERA. Why? Well, he walked 129 and threw 39 wild pitches. Remarkably, he only hit four batters, but he would tell friends that he almost killed a hitter with one of them and, for the rest of his life, he feared pitching inside. Later, in one of countless efforts to end Dalkowski’s wildness, a pitching coach named Clyde King would feed off Dalkowski’s fear by putting hitters on both sides of the plate.

There was a story from that time that has often been told many times though it has never been verified: Ted Williams supposedly saw Dalkowski pitch at spring training in Miami and he wanted to step in just to see what it was like. He dug into the batter’s box and watched Dalkowski wind up. Then, he said, he heard the ball pop into the catcher’s mitt behind him — he never actually saw the ball. Williams dropped his bat, stepped out, and said he never wanted to face that again.

But, with Dalkowski, you don’t need stories that can’t be verified. The verifiable ones are plenty impressive. In April 1958, Dalkowski pitched an exhibition game against Cincinnati. His first warmup pitch sailed 10 feet over the catcher’s head. Nobody wanted to step in. He faced three batters — Don Hoak, Dee Fondy and Alex Grammas. He struck them out on 12 pitches. Fondy tried to bunt three times and only made contact with the ball once, sending it careening backward at such speed Fondy would call it one of the hardest hit balls of his life.

“I told Grammas to stand back in the batters box and not take a chance on getting hurt,” Reds manager Birdie Tebbetts said after the game. Grammas happily obliged.

“I’ve been playing ball for 10 years,” Grammas himself said. “And nobody can throw a baseball harder than that.”

After that, everyone in baseball knew about Dalkowski. It was a golden age for hard-throwing young left-handed pitchers. In Cleveland, Herb Score had become a superstar — that was before he was hit in the face with a Gil McDougald line drive. In Los Angeles, the Dodgers were polishing a young Sandy Koufax. And now Baltimore had its own prodigy. “I honestly think I have never seen anyone throw harder,” gushed Paul Richards, the Orioles manager. He told friends and reporters that he could not wait to get Dalkowski on his pitching staff.

Dalkowski was sent to Class A Knoxville and in his first start struck out 10, walked 12, made an error, balked one run home and lost big. That wasn’t going to cut it. Manager George Staller came up with a solution; he had a piece of wood cut so that it was the exact height and width of a strike zone. He had Dalkowski throw at it. The wood was demolished into sand dust within an hour. In 36 innings, Dalkowski walked 83 batters and threw 10 wild pitches.

So Dalkowski was sent to Class B Wilson, N.C.. He lasted barely a month, pitching just 14 innings and walked 38 batters. “Should he ever find that strike zone, this fellow will be tough to hit,” Wilson general manager Clay Dennis said as Dalkowski was leaving town. “Dalkowski tosses moth balls.”

Dalkowski then took his moth balls to Class C Aberdeen, S.D. He walked 112 and threw 16 wild pitches in 62 innings, so it was more of the same. One interesting thing that did happen in Aberdeen was that the Orioles attempted to find out just how hard he threw. They sent Dalkowski to the Aberdeen Proving Ground, a U.S. Army facility to have his fastball measured by an early radar machine. His pitch registered at 93.5 mph, which doesn’t sound all that impressive in an era of 100-plus mph fastball, but when you look at it in context it might be the most remarkable speed ever achieved.

What context? Dalkowski had pitched a game the night before — and a Dalkowski game usually meant throwing 200 or so pitches. He threw off flat ground — there was no pitcher’s mound — and he was wearing flat shoes. He threw for 40 minutes, throwing as hard as he could, before he could even get a pitch to register. Well, he was Dalkowski.

And, perhaps most of all, the U.S. Army measured the speed of a pitch after a certain distance; in this case it measured the speed 60 feet, 6 inches away. That was why it took so long for Dalkowski to have a pitch register. Modern radar guns measure the speed of the ball just as it leaves the pitcher’s hand. This is an enormous difference.

In the end, we’ll never know how fast Dalkowski could throw at his peak. Estimate range from 100 to 115 mph. Then, pure speed never quite captured Dalkowski’s power anyway. It was the uncontrollable nature of his pitches that left people awed and puzzled.

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* * *

Earl Weaver wasted no time letting people know just what he was about as he became player-manager of a team in Fitzgerald, Ga. — a town that had been built for Civil War veterans. A week into the season, Weaver was on base when a batter hit a routine double-play grounder. Weaver purposely barehanded the ball to prevent the double play. When the umpires ruled that they would grant the double play anyway, he went a little bit crazy and got tossed out. Two weeks later, he got suspended for 10 games after covering home plate with dirt during an argument with umpire Mike Galomb.

Three weeks after that, he was tossed from another game while standing in the on-deck circle. He had a bat in his hand, and he ran toward the umpire like he was going to clock him. Instead, he walked around the umpire, picked up a scoop of dirt with his hands and carefully placed it on the middle of the plate. Then he left quietly. A couple of weeks after that, he got into a fight with the players from Waycross and spent a night in the hospital.

His rage seemed without limit; Weaver was a baseball lover spurned. And, oddly, people started to love him for it. After a year in Fitzgerald, he moved to Dublin, Ga. — a town mentioned in the first paragraph of James Joyce’s “Finnegan’s Wake” — and he was so cherished there that the team actually blocked the Orioles from promoting him as manager during the season.  At one point late in the year, Weaver tripped over first base and broke his arm. This only made him crankier, which only made him more admired by fans.

From there, Earl Weaver was sent to Aberdeen. It was 1959. There in South Dakota, Weaver would first come across the whirlwind that was Steve Dalkowski.

* * *

One of the first ideas the Orioles had for solving Steve Dalkowski’s control problems was to pitch him until he was so tired he simply could not be wild. This was the brainstorm of Harry Dalton, one of baseball’s shrewdest executives. The Orioles had Dalkowski throw for an hour straight, then another hour, then another. They found two things:

1. Dalkowski had a lot of stamina.

2. Dalkowski’s control never improved.

Another thing they tried was having pitching coach Harry Brecheen stand behind Dalkowski and talk to him between every pitch. Brecheen had been a superb left-handed pitcher himself — he won three games in the 1946 World Series — and he knew how to speak the language of pitching. With Brecheen standing there, Dalkowski’s control did improve some. His confidence rose.But the instant Brecheen went back to the dugout, Dalkowski’s wildness returned.

The wildness did not just return. Dalkowski grew wilder. And as his control deteriorated even more, Dalkowski’s life began to go off the rails. He’d always liked a drink — his father, a factory worker, was a drinker — but over time he became known among his teammates for his late night drinking and carousing. He showed up at ballparks drunk and hung over. “When I roomed with him,” a teammate named Herm Starrette would say, “I roomed with a suitcase.”

A Dalkowski fastball tore off a batter’s earlobe. Another hit a batter in the helmet and then soared toward second base, like a major league pop-up. One of his pitches flew high above the catcher’s head, crashed through the wooden backstop behind home plate and scattered the fans sitting in the stands. Another pitch glanced off the glove of catcher Cal Ripken Sr., hit umpire John Lipini in the mask and knocked him out cold. Steve Dalkowski wasn’t just wild. He was becoming a menace to society.

The Orioles created more drills. They gave him more mental exercises. The Orioles tried changing where Dalkowski stood on the mound, how long a stride he took, his arm slot, his elbow movement. Nothing made a dent.

Earl Weaver was mildly intrigued by Dalkowski. Here was a seemingly unsolvable riddle. The first time Weaver managed Dalkowski, the two fought quite a bit. Weaver told Dalkowski he would die by the time he was 33. He made Dalkowski simplify some things. He yelled at Dalkowski, “Just throw the ball over the plate.”

“You just got lesson No. 1: Don’t think,” Crash Davis told Nuke Laloosh in “Bull Durham.” “It can only hurt the ballclub.”

“Forget what everybody told you,” Weaver told Dalkowski. “Just throw the ball over the plate.”

Some of it seemed to get through. On May 17, 1959, with Weaver watching, Dalkowski threw a no-hitter against Grand Forks. He struck out 21. He walked only eight — “only” being defined on Dalkowski terms — and he did it all throwing nothing but fastballs. Dalkowski said he did try one breaking ball but “it almost hit a batter, so I quit using it.”

Think of this kind of supernatural talent — to throw a no-hitter and strike out 21 batters with only a baseball. But, alas, the frog sings and dances only when it feels like it. Next time out, Dalkowski walked 11 in five innings. Time after that, he walked 12.

In 59 innings in Aberdeen, he walked 110. Weaver had run out of answers, and Dalkowski was sent to Class D ball to play for a hopeless Pensacola, Fla., team that would promptly lose 13 straight games. One of those losses came when Dalkowski walked 14 batters in four innings. In another loss, he came in for two innings of relief, walked twelve batters, and a Pensacola outfielder had to come in just so the game would end.

* * *

Elmira was a good place for Earl Weaver. It was a bustling little New York town then, lots of manufacturing, tough blue-collar people like Weaver himself. They had been playing ball in Elmira since the 1880s; Don Zimmer had gotten married at Dunn Field there. Yes, it was a good match when Weaver became manager in Elmira in 1962. Weaver even sold cars in Elmira in the off-season. He was good at it — one month he sold 17 cars.

When Weaver came to Elmira, he was given some remarkably gifted players who would play a huge role in his future. He was given an 18-year-old named Mark Belanger, who couldn’t hit a lick but who could play shortstop the way Heifetz played violin. He was given a 19-year-old lefty pitcher named Dave McNally who did not throw hard but who, later in Baltimore, would win 20 games for Weaver four years in a row.

He was also given another left-handed pitcher, a personal favorite, named Pat Gillick. Weaver was interested not so much because of Gillick’s natural talent (which was marginal) but because Gillick loved baseball almost as much as Weaver did.

“I don’t think there’s a line in The Sporting News he doesn’t read and remember,” Weaver said in 1962. “His memory is fantastic. I would have to say he knows more about ballplayers all over the country, from Class D to the majors, than anybody I have ever met.”

Gillick, of course, had his own destiny — he would become a Hall of Fame general manager — but in those days he still had his dwindling illusions of becoming a Major League pitcher. In 1962, he found himself Earl Weaver’s sounding board for baseball’s greatest riddle: How do you solve a problem like Dalkowski?

Dalkowski arrived in Elmira in 1962 after his most baffling and frustrating season yet. He was so wild at spring training in ’61 that one scout was quoted as saying, “I don’t want to look when they take batting practice against Dalkowski. He is wild enough to miss the batting cage and fast enough to drill holes in concrete.”

The Orioles dumped him in the Tri-Cities, in Washington state, and Dalkowski lost his first eight decisions. He found a kindred spirit there, another left-handed pitcher named John Dewald, who had learned to pitch by throwing baseballs at a 50-gallon oil drum in his family’s backyard. By the year’s end, they had each set Northwest League records. Dewald had set his record by hitting 27 batters in a season, Dalkowski countered by throwing a league-record 28 wild pitches. Dalkowski also walked 196 batters in 103 innings. When the season ended, the Orioles dropped him from their Major League roster.

Weaver hated wasted talent, and that being the case it’s hard to imagine anyone more suitable for his fury than Steve Dalkowski. He’d also failed to get through to Dalkowski once before. But Weaver wondered if there was more to this. People knew Weaver for his most obvious trait, his fury, but his genius was in his ability to break things down.

What did he know of Dalkowski? He knew Dalkowski was a borderline alcoholic. He also knew Dalkowski was a hard worker. He knew the organization had tried countless things to fix Dalkowski’s control problems. When Weaver gave his team IQ tests, he found something that for him unlocked the mystery: Dalkowski scored the lowest IQ on the team.

“That meant we were going about it all wrong with him,” Weaver was quoted saying in Tim Wendel’s book “High Heat.” “We were telling him to hold runners close, teaching him a changeup, how to throw out of the stretch. The problem was he couldn’t process all that information. We were overloading him. Those tests showed that if you had something to teach 100 people, Steve would be the last to learn.”

Weaver began formulating a whole new plan. He told Dalkowski to lay off the road, and he had teammates watch him. He told Dalkowski to stop thinking about anything except throwing the ball over the plate. He had Dalkowski run constantly. And finally, he told Dalkowski that until he got the signal, he should take some speed off his fastball, throw it nice and easy and hit the catcher’s mitt. It was only when he heard the signal, that Dalkowski was allowed to unleash the hardest pitch he could throw.

What was the signal?

Right. It was Earl Weaver whistling.

* * *

The metamorphosis began in late June, in the second game of a doubleheader in Elmira. Pat Gillick pitched the first game and threw seven innings of shutout baseball. Then it was Dalkowski’s turn.

The fans knew what to expect. They called him “Walk Him or Whiff Him Dalkowski.” The first two months of the season, he was 0-4, he walked 31 batters in 21 innings. But Gillick was seeing how Weaver was nursing Dalkowski, taking him out at the first sign of trouble, talking to him all the time about clearing his mind. Something was changing.

That day, Dalkowski threw a four-hit shutout. Next time out, he threw another complete game, walking just two, striking out 11. On Independence Day, he shut out York, striking out 10 along the way.

“What happened to Steve Dalkowski to transform the wild left-hander into a winning pitcher with dependable control?” The Sporting News wondered. Everyone wondered.

Off the field, he was the same goofy Steve Dalkowski. Catcher Andy Etchebarren had bet that Dalkowski could not throw a baseball through the outfield fence. So, of course, Dalkowski threw a baseball through the outfield fence. He still sneaked away for drinks. He still partied like mad. But on the mound, this newfound calm had come over him.

On July 9, that miraculous day, Steve Dalkowski did what had seemed impossible. He threw his third shutout in four starts and struck out 11. For the first — and last — time in his career, he pitched a complete game without walking a single batter.

“It’s unbelievable,” Weaver gushed. “It’s simply amazing.”

Dalkowski told reporters he did not understand his own transformation. Maybe, he said, it was because he wasn’t pumping as hard. “I just don’t know,” he said. “I sure hope it continues.”

The Orioles didn’t care if Dalkowski understood — they just wanted him to keep pitching like that. Everything about Dalkowski was more refined.He had taken something off his fastball early in the count, but 90 percent of a Dalkowski fastball was still 110 percent of anyone else’s. And then, with two strikes, Weaver would whistle, and Dalkowski would smile and unleash that unfathomable pitch. “He loved to hear that whistle,” Weaver would say.

In August, Dalkowski threw back-to-back shutouts. “He’s the best in the league when he has control,” Binghamton’s Hawk Harrelson said. When the season ended, Dalkowski had by far the lowest ERA (3.04) of his career, and he had walked 6.4 batters per nine innings. Yes, that is still ridiculously poor control — Nolan Ryan walked 6.9 batters per game the year the Mets gave up on him — but for Dalkowski it was truly remarkable. Look at it this way:

1957: 18.7 walks per 9

1958: 18.7 walks per 9

1959: 16.8 walks per 9

1960: 13.9 walks per 9

1961: 17.1 walks per 9

1962: 6.4 walks per 9

The Orioles began to believe again in the singing frog. “You just can’t believe he’s the same pitcher,” Orioles scout Barney Lutz said. Harry Dalton said he thought he was seeing things. The Orioles announced they were bringing Steve Dalkowski to spring training in 1963. He would be given every chance to make the club.

“I’ll take Dalkowski,” pitching coach Harry Brecheen told reporters. “If he can get the ball over, he’ll win anywhere.”

* * *

That, sadly, is where our fairy tale ends. Steve Dalkowski did go to spring training in 1964 and he did pitch brilliantly. He not allow a single hit in 7 2/3 innings. He struck out 11. He made the club. On March 22, Dalkowski showed up to a game somewhat hungover from another wild night, and he was fitted for his Major League uniform.

In his final inning of work that very day, he threw one pitch way over the catcher’s head — old Dalkowski style. He heard something in his elbow pop. “It isn’t believed to be serious,” The Sporting News wrote. But when pitcher’s elbows pop, it is always serious. Steve Dalkowski would not make it to the Major Leagues. He was never the same again.

He kicked around for a couple more years. The Orioles released him, the Angels tried to get his career going again. Dalkowski’s control more or less held at the Elmira level, but his fastball wasn’t the same. Hitters, so fearful of him, began to dig in and knock his pitches all over the park. Then, they would tell Dalkowski stories.

Weaver, meanwhile, had begun his inexorable march to the Hall of Fame. He managed in the minors for a few more years, and he kept the crazy stunts going. In one Elmira game, he simply lied down next to the pitcher’s mound for 60 seconds after getting ejected. Soon he was in the big leagues, winning, fighting, getting thrown out of games … mostly winning. Many of his baseball principles like eschewing the bunt, keeping pitchers healthy, cherishing every out were decades ahead of his time.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing of all was that, for a short time, he saved Steve Dalkowski.

In May, 1966, Steve Dalkowski was released for the last time. His life after baseball was strange and sad. He disappeared for a time. He became a full-fledged alcoholic. He was found by family and brought home. He now lives in an assisted living facility in Connecticut, not far from the field where he struck out 18, walked 18 and threw a no-hitter, back in the days when he had serious bleep.

Three months after Steve Dalkowski left the game, a hard-throwing pitcher named Bobby Darwin was moved from pitcher to outfield, where he would have a nine-year Major League career. Why was Darwin moved? “He’s got a major league arm, but he couldn’t get the ball over the plate,” his minor league manager Harry Maimberg said. Then Maimberg shrugged and said three words that will be repeated again and again as long as baseball is played.

“Another Steve Dalkowski,” he said.

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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.

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    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?