Chasing .400

KANSAS CITY — Batting average, like Kodak, video stores and professional boxing, has seen better days. In the last few decades, more and more people have looked at the ingredients of batting average and realized, yeah, it has a few flaws as an all-encompassing  baseball statistic. For one thing, batting average treats walks and hit-by-pitches as non-events — never happened. It also treats bunts that move runners over as non-events but considers grounders that accomplish the exact same thing to be common outs. Fly balls that score runs get a batting-average exemption. Ground balls that score runs do not.

Also: Batting average can call you out even if you are safe; this depends on whether or not and official scorer deems that the defender should have caught the ball and awards an error. And all hits count the same — a seeing-eye single, a wall-rattling double or a titanic home run off the scoreboard — they’re all equal in the eye of batting average.

But batting average is pure Americana now — hits divided by at-bats has long been the first mathematical equation of childhood — and the statistic still thrives in the national language. Stockbrokers talk about their batting averages; so do lawyers and sales people and crass guys reminiscing about how well they did trying to meet women in bars. The other day, a mother — talking about how two of her five children had become doctors — told me she batted .400. She is not a sports fan. She instinctively knew, though, that batting .400 means something.

In the Major Leagues, the drought is now 74 years since Ted Williams batted .406 in 1941. Sure, he knew it was a big deal. Williams came into the final day technically hitting .400 (.39955) and his manager, Joe Cronin, suggested that he sit out the final game of a doubleheader to preserve the magic number. Teddy Ballgame spat on that nonsense, played both games, cracked six hits in eight at bats and kicked .400’s butt.

Yes, he knew it was a big deal. He just didn’t know that it was a BIG DEAL. Bill Terry had hit .400 11 years before, Before that, Rogers Hornsby had done it three times. Ty Cobb had done it three times, too. Not only was Ted Williams sure that someone would do it, Williams was sure that he would hit .400 again. And he almost did, in 1957, when he was 38 years old. Hit .448 the last two months of the season but still came up 12 points and five hits short. If his legs had worked at all, Williams often said, he would have done it.

But after Ted Williams didn’t hit .400 again, well, nobody else did either. Stan Musial topped out at .376. Joe DiMaggio never beat .381. Wade Boggs hit .418 at Fenway Park one year, .411 at Fenway another year. Unfortunately the Green Monster didn’t travel with him on the road, and he did not approach .400 either season. Roberto Clemente, Henry Aaron, Mickey Mantle, Pete Rose, Carl Yastrzemski, Willie Mays, none of them came close.

There were only a few close calls through the years. Rod Carew was the man of a thousand batting stances each one specifically chosen for the pitcher and the ballpark and the occasion. He was an artist at the plate, and in 1977, he was hitting .403 on Independence Day. He seemed the right guy to finally hit .400. But on July 11, he had a 1-for-5 day in Anaheim and never again climbed above .400. The final two months were sheer misery for him. The media pressure was so overwhelming, he took to wearing disguises just to avoid reporters. Carew finished at .388, the same as Ted Williams 20 years earlier.

In 1994, Tony Gwynn made his greatest run for .400. Gwynn seemed born to hit .400. He studied hitting the way Bobby Fischer studied chess. He watched countless hours of video. He developed intricate plans of attack for each plate appearance. Ted Williams himself proclaimed that Gwynn was the man to do it. And on Aug. 11, 1994, Gwynn cracked three hits in five at-bats to lift his average to .394. The chase was on! Only, it wasn’t. The player strike began the next day. The season was stopped. The World Series was canceled.

A few months before his death, I asked Tony Gwynn if he would have hit .400 that year.

“Of course I would have,” he said.

Colorado baseball in the 1990s should have yielded a .400 hitter. Denver was a hitter’s dream. The ball carried so far (this was before the humidor partially deadened the effect of the altitude) that they had to put the fences back miles and miles. That left way too much open space for three outfielders to cover. In 1993, Andres Galarraga – a 32-year-old lifetime .267 hitter – hit .402 at Mile High Stadium, and .370 for the season.

In 1994, Mike Kingery hit .349.

In 1995, now in the new Coors Field, Dante Bichette hit .340 with 40 homers.

In 1996, Ellis Burks hit .344.

In 1997, Larry Walker hit .366. Then he hit .363. Then he hit .379. In the last of those years, 1999, Walker hit an almost unbelievable .461 at home. How do you hit .461 at home and NOT hit .400 for the season? Well, you hit just .286 on the road.

So none of them could quite get it done. The player who came closest was Todd Helton in 2000. Helton hit a robust .353 on the road that year, so he had a real chance. He got his batting average up to .399 in mid-August. But then the pressure began, and he faded, hitting just .295 the rest of the way. That was really the last time anyone threatened.

And now, well, a .400 run seems almost unimaginable. Heck, last year Justin Morneau led the National League in hitting at .319. It was the lowest batting average in more than two decades to win the title. With strikeouts up all around baseball, with hard-throwing relievers rushing in from every bullpen, with teams shifting their defense based on intricate scouting, with batting average itself losing favor, it seems like the very idea of a .400 season is fading.

Then again, if someone COULD make a run – if a Joey Votto or a Miguel Cabrera or Mike Trout or one of the brilliant young hitters out there could somehow nudge above .400 in July or August – I imagine that there would be nationwide hysteria. That’s how it was 35 years ago, when George Brett made the last real run for .400. It was nationwide hysteria.

* * *

George Brett played every single game of 1980 scared out of his mind. What was he scared of? You name it. He was scared that he would let a ball roll through his legs. He was scared that he would drop an easy popup. He was scared he would strike out with the bases loaded. He was scared that he would overthrow the first baseman by 10 feet. He was scared of embarrassment, humiliation, laughter. He was scared that he would let Jimmy down. Who was Jimmy? Jimmy was an imaginary 12-year-old boy Brett had constructed in his mind, an amalgamation of all the 12-year-old kids who had pleaded for his autograph through the years, a huge baseball fan who had come from far away to see his hero play.

Most of all, George Brett was scared of that phone call that was coming (it always came) just a few minutes after the ballgame ended.

“What the hell kind of pitch did you swing at?” the phone caller would yell.

“Were you even trying on that foul ball?” the phone caller would yell.

“That hit in the first inning was pure luck,” the phone caller would yell. “You should give it back.”

Sometimes, at the end of the phone call, Brett would tear the phone out of the clubhouse wall. Other times, he would shake his head and laugh. Most of the time, though, he just listened and stewed because he had been listening to Jack Brett rant all his life. Once, in a Little League game, George struck out twice. Jack kicked him hard in the backside afterward. “That,” Jack said furiously, “is for embarrassing the family.” Yes, that was another fear George Brett felt: The fear of embarrassing the family.

Of course, there was a secret George and his father shared: George just played better scared.

* * *

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He began 1980 cold. George Brett always began seasons cold – he was a .264 lifetime hitter in April. Well, he was a California kid, raised in the El Segundo sunshine. He never wore batting gloves; Brett wanted to feel the sting of being jammed and the thrill of hitting a baseball just right. In Kansas City, though, the April chill deadened his hands. Everything hurt. That year, he was hitting .259 coming out of April, and early May wasn’t much better. It wasn’t until the last week of May that he started to feel warmth in his hands, and in the final four games of the month, he got nine hits in 17 at-bats to push his average over .300.

The word in America was “malaise.” President Jimmy Carter talked about a “fundamental threat to American democracy” — this was the threat of apathy. Ronald Reagan countered by saying America was a shining city on the hill. The nightly news kept a count of how long 52 Americans had been held hostage in Iran. Gas lines stretched into the streets. The Olympics went on in the Soviet Union without American athletes. Muhammad Ali was losing weight; he promised to come back and win the heavyweight title for the fourth time. A serial killer was murdering black children in Atlanta. “The Empire Strikes Back” hit movie theaters. “Three’s Company” was the No. 1 comedy on television.

In early June, George Brett hit three home runs in three days against the New York Yankees. For him, that was what 1980 was all about: Finally beating the Yankees. Three times, the Royals had reached the playoffs. Three times, they had been knocked out by the Bombers. Brett hurt his ankle stealing a base, but he came back in time to go to Yankee Stadium in July and drive in nine runs in three games. His batting average climbed to .375. “The only way to pitch Brett now is way inside,” Yankees pitcher Rudy May muttered to the press. “That way, the line drive won’t hit you.”

A summer-long heat wave suffocated Kansas City. The Royals’ groundskeeper, George Toma, had a thermometer at Royals Stadium designed to measure the temperature of the AstroTurf; it often registered at 145 degrees. During day games, Kansas City players would submerge their feet — cleats and all — in buckets of ice water between innings. The hotter the temperature, though, the better Brett hit. He got four hits in five at-bats against Boston to lift the average to .382. He went 3-for-5 in Toronto to lift his average to .390.

And on Aug. 17, with a 28-game hitting streak on the line, he faced Jim Clancy and the Blue Jays. Brett loved hitting against Clancy, a big right-hander from the South Side of Chicago. Clancy came at hitters straightaway; Brett liked that. “I wore that guy’s ass out,” Brett would say many years later. Brett reluctantly walked the first time up. The second time, he rifled a single to right to extend the hitting streak to 29 games. The average was .396.

In the fifth, he hit a high chopper off the sizzling turf and beat the second baseman’s throw. His average was up to .397.

In the seventh, he crushed a double into the gap in right-center, driving in the go-ahead run. The average was now .399.

The 30,000-plus at the stadium all knew exactly what was happening. Some had brought calculators. When Brett came up in the bottom of the eighth with the bases loaded, well, the Royals’ young director of sales looked out from the press box and realized he had never heard the place so loud. He had never felt such tension. He would say this was perhaps the most memorable moment of his young life.

And Brett stepped in to the box feeling the usual fear of failure. “Damn, I’m hot,” he said to himself, a reminder, and he looked out to the mound. Jim Clancy had been pulled. The new pitcher was the opposite sort of pitcher, Mike Barlow, a soft-throwing and deceptive lefty, the kind of pitcher Brett hated facing. Brett heard the voice of his old hitting coach, Charlie Lau, growling in head. “Wait, dummy!” the voice said, and when the offspeed pitch came, Brett waited and waited and waited and, at the last instant, uncoiled. He hit the ball just as it was about to plop into the catcher’s mitt. He smashed it to left field. A double. When he got to second base, the scoreboard flashed the batting average: .401. The sound was booming.

Brett stood at second base and lifted his arms in the air in triumph.

“Do you know what you mean to these people?” the young director of sales gushed to Brett when the game ended. “Do you know just how much you mean?” Many years later, that director of sales would remember the moment again, only by then he’d developed his own fame as Rush Limbaugh.

“I’ll never forget it,” Limbaugh would say.

* * *

The Elias Sports Bureau calculated the odds of George Brett hitting .400 at 1.7 quadrillion-to-1. Other mathematicians immediately railed against Elias’ methods and said the odds were closer to 9 million-to-1. But in Vegas, the odds had dropped to 4-to-1. In Milwaukee at the end of August, he went 5-for-5 — sparking two standing ovations from Brewers fans — to bring his average up to .407. “George Brett for President” bumper stickers began to show up on the backs of cars.

Jack Brett was as relentless as ever over the phone. Every game, he attacked George for something. Jack was a Brooklyn native, a World War II veteran, an accountant for the Datsun car company. He raised his four sons on baseball and winning. Ken Brett was his greatest hope. Ken was almost five years older than George, and he was the All-American kid — great student, great athlete, great pitcher, great hitter, great everything. Casey Stengel came to see him play. Yogi Berra came to the house to sell the family on the Yankees. “I wanted him to replace Mickey Mantle,” Jack would say.

George, meanwhile, was the screw-up. The kid who hid his report card. The casual ballplayer who would get cocky if he got a hit. “Poor George,” Jack used to call him, and Jack never let up on him, not ever. When George’s mother asked Jack to take it easy on George, he shook his head. “What’s going to become of him?” he asked furiously.

“Maybe I was too hard on him,” Jack would say later in life. Maybe. When George made the big leagues, Jack started to call. “Did you get any hits today?” he’d ask.

“No,” George said.

“Damn it, George. Your brother Ken got two hits, and he’s a PITCHER.”

Ken didn’t become the star Jack or anyone else expected. He had a nice 14-year big league career, made an All-Star Team, but by 1980, everyone knew it was coming to an end. He was 31 and his arm was shot. The Royals picked him up in September, largely to help George mentally. Ken pitched 13 innings in relief that September and did not give up a run. “I think George can do it,” he told the reporters who rushed to his locker.

And the reporters did rush in, they came in from everywhere, so many that the Royals weren’t quite sure what to do. Brett had always been a reporter’s dream; he enjoyed the give-and-take with the press. He loved the attention. For a week after the Milwaukee game, his average hovered over .400, and he had daily bull sessions with the dozens of reporters who were now following him. “This is fun,” he said.

It would be the last time he said that.

* * *

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The chase was inescapable. Both presidential candidates, Carter and Reagan, kept invoking Brett’s name (Neither one deserved “The George Brett Trophy,” George Will wrote in The Washington Post). It was said that the American hostages in Iran were being given updates about Brett’s chase. Papers across America had begun a daily “George Brett Watch.” Johnny Carson told George Brett jokes. Billy Graham told his congregations to be humble, for even George Brett sometimes goes 0-for-3. A comic strip called “Berry’s World,” featured a boy muttering to his parents, “What proof do you have that George Brett eats his Brussels sprouts?”

The editorial page of the New York Times came out strongly in favor of Brett hitting .400:

“September is baseball’s testing month. The pressure mounts, the autumn shadows lengthen, the playoffs loom. And the fans want to be there when history, real history, is made. If the gods are kind, they may see a secular miracle: Bobby Thomson’s home run of 1951, or Don Larsen’s perfect game in the 1956 World Series, or Hank Aaron topping Babe Ruth’s Everest total of 714 career home runs. Now such rapturous fixation focuses on George Brett. We hope it helps.”

It did not help. The attention began to fray Brett’s nerves. The repetitive questions from the endless line of reporters — to go along with increasing intensity from Jack’s phone calls — began to drive him crazy. “Can’t you just copy someone else’s story?” he snapped at the Chicago Sun-Times reporter. “I never asked to hit .400,” he griped in general. Joe Klein was sent to do a daily diary on Brett, but he noticed that as time went on Brett started to get testier and angrier. He told author John Garrity that he abandoned the diary idea, fearing that his last entry would be, “Brett is looking at me now with murder in his eyes.” The New York Daily News wrote a story headlined, “Pressure Getting to Brett.”

But he kept hitting, at least for a while. On Sept. 19, after a week or two of dancing around the magic number, Brett singled twice against Oakland to lift his average to .3995 — technically .400. But this was not the celebration of a month earlier. “If I don’t do it, I’ll feel I let myself and a lot of other people down,” Brett morosely told reporters. “I need some padding. I need a four- or five-hit game to get up to .408 or .410.” Instead, he went 1-for-8 the next two days at home against Oakland, dropping the average to .394, and then the team shipped off to Seattle and then Minnesota.

Those six games would become the nadir of 1980. Nothing went right. The team had wrapped up the division title, and they lost their edge; the Royals descended into a what-difference-does-it-make eight-game losing streak. Brett couldn’t get anything going in Seattle, to the dismay of Mariners fans who had nothing else to cheer. In Minnesota, for a Saturday morning game, he expected a day off but instead found himself in the lineup against tough lefty Jerry Koosman. Brett went 0-for-4 and his average dropped down to .384. For the first time since the chase began, he refused to talk to the press.

“Thanks a lot, George,” said Mike McKenzie, the columnist for The Kansas City Star. “I spent all this money, flew all this way out to Minnesota to interview you and you’re not talking.”

Brett turned to teammate Darrell Porter and shouted, “Darrell, one (bleeping) day I want to go without the same questions. One (bleeping) day. You think there’s anything wrong with that?”

Porter confirmed there was not, in fact, anything wrong with that, but then Brett exploded to McKenzie, unleashing all the frustration and misery and pressure that had bottled up. The same questions. The daily pressure. The constant distractions. Brett was a one-thought hitter; one of his gifts was an ability to clear his mind of everything but one thought (Usually: Sit fastball, adjust to the curve). But now, a thousand thoughts buzzed. Baseball had stopped being fun. Hitting had stopped being fun. Dealing with the press had stopped being fun. None of it was fun at all.

“They’ll say I choked,” Brett said finally, getting to the crux of things, getting to that emotion of fear again.

“No they won’t,” McKenzie said.

“If they would leave me alone,” Brett said softly, “I could still do it. I could still hit .400.”

The next day, Royals manager Jim Frey — seeing that Brett had boiled over — gave him the day off. Many of the reporters had left the game. There were fewer than 7,000 fans at old Metropolitan Stadium. Brett sat on the bench and watched a stirring game and felt some of the old joy. He wanted to get in there! In the sixth inning, down by a run, the Royals loaded the bases against a right-handed pitcher named Pete Redfern. “Hey George,” Frey yelled out, “why don’t you go hit?”

Brett happily bound to the plate and he hit a grand slam the give the Royals the lead. His average was up to .385, and there was a week left in the season.

“It’s not over!” he told the reporters who stayed around.

* * *

With the benefit of hindsight, here is what we know about the last week of the 1980 season: Brett would come to the plate 24 times. He walked six times — twice intentionally — which meant that he got 18 official at-bats.

To hit .400, he needed 14 hits in those 18-at bats. He would need those 14 hits under the most intense pressure, facing mostly left-handed pitchers, and rarely seeing a good pitch. It was a daunting task. But with almost everyone having written him off, Brett felt loose and free again.

In the first game, against Seattle, he singled in the first and then singled in the third. The average was up to .388. So far so good. The game dragged into the 14th inning, where Brett hit a walk-off home run off of Mark Parrott. A three-hit game, but because the game stretched into extra innings, he also used three of his four outs.

In game two against Seattle, he was intentionally walked in the first inning, which ticked him off so much that he stole second base. He homered in the fourth, doubled in the fifth and doubled again in the seventh. His average was up to .391. His brother Ken got the save in the Royals’ 94th win of the season. There was still a chance.

But then the chance was gone. The next day, against Floyd Bannister — another pitcher he beat up through the years — Brett went 0-for-2, and (though he didn’t know it officially) he was mathematically eliminated from .400. Brett went 3-for-7 in his last two games, and finished at .390 — the highest batting average since Ted Williams’ .406 four decades earlier. Brett finished five hits shy of .400.

Brett continued his Hall of Fame career from there — he and the Royals finally beat the Yankees in 1980; he won another batting title; he twice led the league in slugging; he played in eight more All-Star games; he carried the Royals to their one World Series title in 1985 — but Brett never again hit quite like he did in 1980. Teams stopped throwing him fastballs, for one thing. But he also was changed by the experience. He stopped being the scared kid so hungry to prove himself. Brett’s greatness came out in the biggest moments – he hit nine homers in 27 playoff games, and hit .373 in two World Series. But that run at .400, well, it was a once-in-a-lifetime thing.

In 1992, Jack Brett was told that he had cancer. He had just one request of the family: Don’t tell George. “He’s in a slump,” Jack said. “He doesn’t need to be thinking about me.” When his condition worsened, the family did call George who rushed home and was at his father’s side when he died. After the funeral, he returned. After a couple of days of rough days, he cracked three hits to pass Babe Ruth on the all-time hits list.

“I wish Dad would have been around to see it,” George said. “But he was around for a lot of good stuff.” It was true. Many years later, I asked George Brett about 1980, and he remembered how good it felt when he was hot, and he remembered how much the attention overwhelmed him, but mostly he remembered Jack Brett.

“Do you know what he told me when the season ended?” George asked. I shook my head.

“He said, ‘Do you mean to tell me that you couldn’t have gotten five more (bleeping) hits?'”

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    Once more, with feeling

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

    How does it FEEL, Jimmie?

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

    How does it FEEL, Jimmie?

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

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

    “Wonderful,” he says.

    “Surreal,” he says.

    “Incredible,” he says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

    * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

    * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    [nbcsports_mpx url=]

    Johnson begins to turn red, “I mean …”

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

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

    Earnhardt doesn’t say a word.

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

    * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    And, inside the car, Johnson fell asleep

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

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

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

    * * *

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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?