Hall of Fame Ballot (Part 2)

(In part one of this series, I broke down candidates 32 through 16. Those candidates can be found here. I also wrote about the case for Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds here.)

Here are my top 15 players on this year’s Hall of Fame ballot. The Hall of Fame limits voters to 10 votes. I used all 10 of my available slots.

15. Gary Sheffield

Predicted percentage: 10 percent

No. 14 outfielder not in the Hall of Fame

Gary Sheffield is an admitted user of performance-enhancing drugs, which probably eliminates him from consideration in the eyes of many voters. But Sheffield’s Hall of Fame case is complicated beyond PEDs. He was a remarkable hitter. Remember the menacing way he would rock the bat before the pitch? It was as if the bat was a snake trying to jump out of his hands. Then the pitch would come, and Sheffield would swing with every ounce of fury he had in his body. It wasn’t a healthy swing; it was the swing of a kid who had been bullied one time too many. If anyone could have knocked down an oak tree with a baseball bat, it was Gary Sheffield.

But here was the thing: He almost never missed. In an era of swing-and-miss sluggers, Sheffield did not strike out even 80 times in a season until he turned 35 and his bat had slowed infinitesimally. He was a .300 hitter into his mid-30s. He won a batting title. He was this crazy combination of rage and control. Over his career, he created 1,946 runs — more than George Brett, Derek Jeter, Al Kaline or Dave Winfield.

But man oh man, was he a dreadful defensive player. Baseball Reference has him listed as an impossible-to-believe 28.6 wins below average for his career. This would make him worse than Dave Kingman, Greg Luzinski and every other terrible fielder you can remember. It’s true: Baseball Reference rates Sheffield as the least valuable defensive outfielder in baseball history.

Fangraphs has a different metric for measuring defense, but they tell the same story. Fangraphs estimates that Sheffield cost his team 200 more runs than the average outfielder.

Baseball analyst Tom Tango ran through the numbers with me because they seemed so extreme, and, yep, that’s how they add up. Sheffield’s fielding range was dreadful. People ran on his arm. It’s hard to look at the numbers — or simply remember watching Sheffield play — and not conclude that he was a huge liability as a defender.

Why, though? Sheffield was a terrific athlete. He was a driven player and a smart one. What made him such a poor defensive player? It’s hard to say. Sheffield was emotional. He had huge mood swings on the field. Maybe, like Ted Williams, he just didn’t want to play defense.

This leads to a Hall of Fame conundrum: If Sheffield had spent much of his career as a DH, the way Edgar Martinez did, his Hall of Fame case would be very hard to dismiss. He ranks 32nd in offensive WAR, right alongside first-ballot Hall of Famer Frank Thomas, who alternated between DH and sub-par first baseman.

But when you include defense, Sheffield’s overall WAR free-falls to 116th all-time, behind — among others — Edgar Martinez (at 76). He hurt his team badly with his defense, and in the balance, I think he falls shy of the Hall of Fame line, even if you don’t mark him down for PED use.

14. Sammy Sosa

Predicted percentage: 8 percent

No. 12 outfielder not in the Hall of Fame

If early votes are any indication, Sosa looks like he will survive for another ballot. But to what end? He’s not gaining any traction. My guess is that voters have grown bored by his resume. Let’s face it: Sammy Sosa’s case revolves around home runs, and nobody likes to talk about home runs from the PED Era. Sosa is not an all-time great like Barry Bonds or Roger Clemens, so he will never be in the headline. And nobody wants to be reminded of the Sosa-McGwire show that captivated America in 1998 and now, like a high school yearbook haircut, embarrasses America.

It’s easy to forget that at one time, Sammy Sosa was the feel-good story in sports. He grew up dirt poor in the famed Dominican city of San Pedro de Macoris. He signed with the Texas Rangers at 16 years old and got his first call to the big leagues when he was 20. He hit his first home run at Fenway Park off Roger Clemens. Almost exactly a month later, he was traded to the White Sox for 1980s icon Harold Baines.

Sosa was a very different player in the beginning. He was fast, he played good defense, and he was offensively challenged. In 1992, in a rare crosstown deal between the White Sox and Cubs, Sosa was traded for 1980s icon George Bell. It is fascinating that that Cubs, so well known for the terrible Brock-for-Broglio trade, have been on the good side of some amazing deals: Fergie Jenkins for Bob Buhl and Larry Jackson; Ryne Sandberg for Ivan DeJesus; Sosa for Bell.

In Sosa’s second year with the Cubs, 1993, he had baseball’s only 30-homer, 30-stolen-base season. In 1996, at age 26, he hit 40 home runs for the first time. He was transforming.

And then, in 1998, the transformation was complete. He started hitting home runs, and he would not stop. He also lost all of the other parts of his game. Almost overnight, he became a defensive liability. He more or less stopped running. Pitchers started to work around him, forcing him (against his will) to take some walks. From 1998 to 2001, Sosa hit 66, 63, 50 and 64 home runs — that’s 243 home runs total. Nobody else hit that many home runs in four years. He hit more home runs in those four years than Roberto Clemente or Paul Molitor hit for their careers.

But the more home runs he hit, the less America was drawn to the Sosa feel-good story. You will remember when Sports Illustrated’s Rick Reilly challenged Sosa to take a drug test. Sosa made an awkward appearance before Congress, denying drug use but also refusing to speak English. Then, The New York Times reported that Sosa was one of the 104 players who failed a drug test in 2003. Those results were supposed to be kept secret, but they were not and Sosa — along with David Ortiz, Manny Ramirez, Alex Rodriguez and Barry Bonds — became the public face of baseball’s out-of-control steroid use in the 1990s.

Sosa’s Hall of Fame case revolves around his 600 home runs and his three seasons of 60-plus homers. With the majority of voters and fans still seething over PEDs, Sosa’s home run totals leave people cold. It is possible that years from now when the Hall of Fame creates a panel of experts to sort out the Selig Era that Sosa and his legacy will be reconsidered.

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13. Jim Edmonds

Predicted percentage: 3 percent

No. 9 outfielder not in the Hall of Fame

How long does someone have to be great to be considered a Hall of Famer? Edmonds had five or six great seasons, which is about the right number for a typical Hall of Famer. He had three or four more very good seasons. And that makes up his career — he didn’t stay healthy enough or play long enough to push his career numbers into a range where Hall of Fame voters get excited.

Edmonds and Larry Walker have an interesting relationship. They were contemporary outfielders, of course, and they both did a number of things well. Their careers were about the same length — Walker’s was a touch longer. But Walker’s batting average was about 30 points higher, his slugging percentage about 40 points higher.

This was largely the illusion of Coors Field. If you compare their road numbers, Edmonds was a little bit better.

Walker: .278/.370/.495 with 168 homers.

Edmonds: .282/.371.518 with 189 homers.

Of course, you don’t want to make TOO much of that. Edmonds’ road numbers, after all, include his time at Coors Field. Also, Walker built his swing around Coors Field, which hurt his road game. I think Walker was a slightly better player because he did more things well — he was a better baserunner, and he didn’t swing and miss as much. But it’s very close.

Edmonds was a wonderful centerfielder. He wasn’t fast, but he had superior instincts and a diver’s ability to control his body. In 1997, Edmonds made a catch in Kansas City that many consider the greatest of all time. I’m one of the many. Michael Schur and I talked about it on the PosCast, and this is the best thing we could say about it: When someone makes a catch that special, you know they are a brilliant outfielder. You don’t need to see anything else. Many highlight catches are just spectacular coincidences. The ball happens to fly to the exact right spot and the exact right speed to allow the outfielder to stretch out just so. It’s timing. Average and poor outfielders make great catches.

The Edmonds catch was different. Only a master, someone with extraordinary body control and impeccable instincts and a genius for the game could make that catch.

12. Mark McGwire

Predicted percentage: 14 percent

No. 4 first baseman/DH not in the Hall of Fame

I have voted for McGwire. I did not vote for him this year because I did not have room for him on my ballot. But, given an unlimited ballot, I would vote for McGwire. It’s close, though, and I respect the case against him. Almost the entirety of McGwire’s Hall of Fame case rests on home runs. When you add in his steroid admission, I can see the argument that home runs are not enough.

I would vote for him because his were unlike anyone else’s home runs. And he was a spectacular show. After the strike, when baseball was struggling to connect with America, people would come just to watch him take batting practice.

One final thought on McGwire: I don’t think he got a fair shake after publicly admitting his steroid use and speaking his heart about it. I know some thought he held some stuff back, and others thought the apology was a cynical maneuver to get back into baseball. But I think McGwire is one of the few who honestly felt bad about his steroid use and one of the few (the only one?) willing to put himself out there, not because he was caught red-handed but because he wanted to be a part of this great game. I’m not saying his apology makes everything better. But the farther away we get from the Selig Era, the more McGwire’s apology stands out as a rare example of someone, at least, trying to do the right thing.

11. Larry Walker

Predicted percentage: 16 percent

No. 6 outfielder not in the Hall of Fame

Larry Walker had one of the strangest careers in baseball history. He grew up playing hockey with future Hall of Famer Cam Neely, and he dreamed only of being an NHL goalie. He was signed by the Expos for $1,500 after he failed to stick in professional hockey. The Expos took a chance on him mostly because he was Canadian.

Walker did not know much about baseball. Before he went to Class-A Utica, he would say, he had never seen a slider. He hit .223 that year, all of it on fastballs. Walker had a natural talent for hitting fastballs. He then slaved away at his new game. He missed an entire year with a knee injury. He struck out a lot. He improved. As a rookie, he showed enough promise that someone gave him a third-place Rookie of the Year vote.

Improvement came fast. In 1991, he hit .290/.349/.458, hit 16 homers, stole 14 bases, began to show off a strong arm in right field. In 1992, he hit .300 for the first time, won his first Gold Glove, finished top 10 in RBIs, slugging, total bases and OPS. After that, Dan Duquette said he had the talent to be like Ken Griffey or Barry Bonds.

In 1994, Larry Walker had his first great year. He hit .322, slugged .587 and was leading the first-place Expos when the strike happened. There is always talk about what might have been without the 1994 strike. Matt Williams or Ken Griffey might have broken Roger Maris’ home run record. Tony Gwynn might have hit .400. Well, Larry Walker had 44 doubles in 103 games — he might have challenged Earl Webb’s seemingly unbreakable record of 67 doubles in a season.

Then, the next crazy turn in his crazy career happened: He signed with the Colorado Rockies just as they were moving into beautiful-but-ludicrous Coors Field. That ballpark was like a science experiment. The ball soared because of the altitude and dry air, the outfield fences were way bad and doubles and homers popped like popcorn.

Larry Walker entered this crazy new world and put up some radical numbers. In 1995, Walker hit a career-high 36 homers in just 131 games, drove in 101 runs, scored 96. It was just a taste of things to come.

Walker had an insane 1997 season. He hit .366, cranked 49 homers and 46 doubles, scored 143 runs, drove in 130 runs, stole 33 bases. No one had ever put together a number cocktail quite like that. He won the MVP award. He won the Gold Glove. He won everything.

But how good a season was it? It was hard to tell. Walker didn’t stop. In 1998, Walker hit .363, won his first batting title, cracked 46 doubles and 23 homers and won another Gold Glove. He hit .418 at home and .302 on the road.

In 1999, he had one of the craziest home/road splits ever.

On the road, he hit .286 and slugged .519 with 11 homers — a nice year.

At Coors Field, he hit .461, slugged .879 and hit 26 homers.

It all added up to a .379 batting average, one of the highest in the last 75 years. Well, yeah: The guy hit .461 at home. But what did it mean? Bill James, in his entry about Larry Walker in the Historical Baseball Abstract, wrote about “phony baseball statistics” and wondered whether, at Hall of Fame time, people would see through them.

In 2001, Walker grabbed his third batting title by hitting .350, and he threw in 35 homers and 38 doubles, drove in 123 RBIs. Again, he hit better than .400 at home and less than .300 on the road.

In 2002, he had another 1.000 OPS season.  He had five of those 1.000 OPS seasons — the same number as Willie Mays, one more than Henry Aaron. People were so baffled by the Coors Field effect, Walker didn’t even make the All-Star team.

In all, Walker hit .313/.400/.565 for his career — split numbers that are almost unmatched. Only ten men in baseball history with 5,000 or more plate appearances have hit .300/.400/.550:

1. Jimmie Foxx

2. Lou Gehrig

3. Hank Greenberg

4. Rogers Hornsby

5. Stan Musial

6. Manny Ramirez

7. Babe Ruth

8. Frank Thomas

9. Larry Walker

10. Ted Williams

Of those 10, you will note, only Walker has more than 200 stolen bases. Only Walker had the reputation as an excellent fielder.

So what do you do with all this? Who the heck knows? You don’t want to give Walker too much credit for his crazy Coors Field numbers. But you also don’t want to forget that Walker was one of those rare players who did EVERYTHING well and was developing into a superstar before he ever went to Colorado.

What to do? For me, the last spot on my Hall of Fame ballot came down to Walker and Edgar Martinez. Both had amazing careers. Both have obvious flaws in their case. I think Martinez was the better hitter. I think Walker clearly did more things well. What to do? I voted Edgar. If I had 11 spots, I would have voted Walker also.

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Here are the ten on my official Hall of Fame ballot:

10. Edgar Martinez

Predicted percentage: 49 percent

No. 3 first base/DH not in the Hall of Fame

I have him at No. 3 at his position — behind Jeff Bagwell and Jim Thome.

People often say that designated hitters are “specialists.” I don’t think that is true. Yes, they don’t play in the field. But a specialist is, by definition, a person highly skilled in a specific and restricted field.

Hitting is not a specific or restricted field. Hitting is more or less half of baseball. If hitting is a specialty then so is pitching.

Martinez was a genius of a hitter. Michael Schur brought up this point: Edgar was 11 for 19 against Mariano Rivera with three doubles and two home runs. It’s a small point, yes, but it’s a pretty good statistic. Pitcher after pitcher will tell you that Edgar Martinez was the toughest hitter they ever faced.

9. Alan Trammell

Predicted percentage: 46 percent

No. 4 infielder not in the Hall of Fame

It looks like Trammell, in his final year on the ballot, will get a nice boost but he won’t get close to the necessary 75 percent.

I’ve often wondered if Trammell’s Hall of Fame story would have been different had he won the 1987 MVP Award. He should have won it, but instead lost out to George Bell, who had a cosmetically great season, but Trammell was a lot better.

Maybe that would not have made any difference at all — after all, Dale Murphy won back-to-back MVPs and couldn’t get any real Hall of Fame traction. But Trammell compares so well to almost every Hall of Fame shortstop, and maybe an MVP would have made that clearer to the masses. Trammell’s case will soon be in the hands of the Hall of Fame veteran’s committee. Maybe they will take a look at a Lou Whitaker-Alan Trammell double.

8. Tim Raines

Predicted percentage: 69 percent

No. 5 outfielder not in the Hall of Fame

Early Hall of Fame balloting shows Raines over the 75-percent line. Most people think that when the actual votes come in, Raines will fall just shy — setting him up for election next year in his final ballot.

But there is a chance he will get in this year. Wouldn’t that be great?

I’ve written many, many times about Raines. He was as good a player as Hall of Famer Lou Brock. He was as good a player as Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn. He was as good a player as Hall of Fame teammate Andre Dawson (even if Raines himself does not believe that). And so on.

Instead of covering that familiar ground, let’s take a moment to remember just how good Tim Raines was at stealing bases.

Rickey Henderson stole about 500 more bases than anyone in baseball history. He was successful an excellent 81 percent of the time.

Lou Brock was successful 75 percent of the time. Maury Wills, often credited with bringing the stolen base back into the game, was successful about that same percentage.

Vince Coleman once stole 50 bases in a row; he was successful 81 percent of the time. Joe Morgan, the greatest baserunner of his generation, was successful 81 percent of the time. Willie Wilson, who I believe was the fastest man ever to play Major League Baseball, was successful an astonishing 83 percent of the time. It does not seem possible for anyone to top that percentage.

Tim Raines was successful stealing on 808 of 954 attempts. That’s 85 percent of the time. It’s untouchable.

7. Mike Mussina

Predicted percentage: 46 percent

No. 3 pitcher not in the Hall of Fame

6. Curt Schilling

Predicted percentage: 51 percent

No. 2 pitcher not in the Hall of Fame

It is time to start unloading some rage about the ongoing Curt Schilling Hall of Fame snub. A few years ago, you might recall that many, many baseball writers rallied around Jack Morris as a Hall of Fame candidate.

Morris was, by anyone’s reasoning, a flawed Hall of Fame candidate. His 3.90 ERA would have been the highest in the Hall of Fame. He did not win 300 games. He did not strike out 3,000 batters. He did not win a Cy Young Award. His 1.78 strikeout-to-walk ratio was pretty pedestrian — it ranks 146th of the 229 pitchers with 2,000 innings since 1950.

But many voters were happy to overlook these imperfections because Morris was a workhorse (he led the league in innings pitched once and finished in the top 10 several other times). He was reliable. And he had one of the greatest postseason pitching performances in baseball history — his 10-inning shutout against Atlanta in the 1991 World Series.

I was not a Morris Hall of Fame guy (to say the least), but I grew to appreciate why voters were so passionate about his case.

Now — here’s Curt Schilling. His ERA is a half run better than Morris. He did strike out 3,000 batters. He did not win a Cy Young Award either, but he finished second three times, twice to Randy Johnson. And his 4.38 strikeout-to-walk ratio is, yes, the best in baseball history.

To me, that last sentence alone should be enough to get Curt Schilling into the Hall fo Fame.

But here’s the baffling part. All those things that writers supposedly loved about Morris are so much more true of Schilling. He was a workhorse (he TWICE led the league in innings pitched and finished in the top 10 several other times). And he has a case as the greatest postseason pitcher ever. Schilling went 11-2 in October with a 2.23 ERA, a 4.80 strikeout-to-walk ratio, two shutouts and numerous legendary performances including the bloody sock game and a couple of gutsy games against the Yankees in 2001.

Curt Schilling should have been elected on the first ballot. He was not, in part (I suspect) because he only won 216 games and there are still people all caught up in pitcher wins. But I fear a lot of people are snubbing Schilling because they don’t like him. And that’s shameful. Curt Schilling was one of the greatest pitchers in baseball history. He won big games his whole career. These are the only things that matter when it comes to voting for the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Mussina was an ace who was never quite recognized as an ace, and that has carried over a bit into his Hall of Fame journey. But I think people are beginning to appreciate just how good a pitcher he was. He should take a nice percentage leap this year, and I now believe he will get elected by the BBWAA.

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5. Mike Piazza

Predicted percentage: 83 percent

No. 1 catcher not in the Hall of Fame

I think Piazza will get elected this year, and when he does maybe we stop with the silly steroid whispers that have marred this Hall of Fame process for way too long. I don’t know if Mike Piazza used PEDs, and you don’t either. There was no testing. That’s the point. There was no testing and no effort to punish steroid users and no plan to keep performance-enhancing drugs out of the game. That’s the real travesty.

And, in my view, it’s time to stop fighting that old fight. Everyone should focus on how to handle PEDs now and in the future because it will be a challenge. Performance-enhancing drugs will get better. They will become harder to trace. They will become safer and perhaps even legal. How will baseball deal with the future? This is what matters. It’s time to stop trying to win the battle of the 1990s. That battle is over.

Piazza was the greatest hitting catcher in baseball history.

4. Jeff Bagwell

Predicted percentage: 76 percent

No. 1 first baseman/DH not in the Hall of Fame

Here is the one to watch: Bagwell is RIGHT on the cusp. He could get elected this year. He also could fall just short. It will be very, very close.

3. Ken Griffey

Predicted percentage: 99 percent

No. 2 outfielder not in the Hall of Fame

Back in those naive days when everybody loathed Barry Bonds simply because he acted like a jerk a lot, Ken Griffey, Jr., was viewed, by consensus, as the best player in baseball. Well, Griffey was fun. Bonds was dour. Griffey radiated joy. Bonds radiated rage. Griffey played centerfield and had a luscious, musical swing. Bonds played left and had a violent swing that made us think of a gangster with a Tommy Gun.

They had much in common. They were both left-handed sons of 1970s baseball stars. They were both baseball prodigies who played about 100 minor league games before getting the big-league call. They both hit 16 home runs their rookie years and flashed promise for down-on-their-luck franchises. By the time they reached 30, each player already had one foot in Cooperstown.

And just about everyone thought — or wanted to think — Griffey was the better player.

In the 1990s, Junior hit .304/.384/.581 with 382 homers and more than 1,000 RBIs and runs scored. He won the Gold Glove every year, and he made the All-Star Geam every year. He led the league in homers four times, runs once, RBIs once and so on. He was on pace to break Henry Aaron’s home run record. He was a fantastic player and a wonder to behold.

He just wasn’t Barry Bonds.

We will never know the full extent of Barry Bonds’ PED use or how much of a role it played in his career. The popular storyline goes like this: In the late 1990s, he grew sickened by the way PEDs had puffed up otherwise inferior players. In response, he bulked up himself to show people what a real superhero looks like. Mission accomplished.

But we’re not talking about that Bonds, we’re talking about 1990s Bonds.

From 1990 to 1999, Barry Bonds hit .302/.434/.602 with 361 home runs and more than 1,000 RBIs and runs scored. You might say that’s similar to Griffey, and you can do that if you want to ignore 50 points of on-base percentage and 20 points of slugging percentage. But consider this: Bonds hit in a tougher ballpark. He stole about 200 more bases than Griffey. He won eight Gold Gloves himself even at a time when it was very hard for left fielders to win a Gold Glove.

Griffey will sail into the Hall of Fame this year, and I hope it’s unanimous. Bonds will not get elected at all because he presumably abused PEDs and a majority of Hall of Fame voters believe that disqualifies him from the Hall of Fame reward. Griffey was extraordinary. Bonds was the best player of his generation.

2. Roger Clemens

Predicted percentage: 44 percent

No. 1 pitcher not in the Hall of Fame

There are those who will say that Sandy Koufax was the greatest pitcher of all time.

There are those who will say that Pedro Martinez was the greatest pitcher of all time.

By the numbers, Clemens was essentially Koufax PLUS Martinez.

I’ve broken this down before, but if you want it quickly: Clemens in Boston went 192-111 with a 144 ERA+, two Cy Young awards, and an MVP. It’s not QUITE the Pedro Martinez career, but it’s very, very close.

Clemens after Boston went 162-73 with a 140 ERA+ and four Cy Young awards. That was pretty much Koufax’s career.

Roger Clemens by the numbers had TWO Hall of Fame careers. Even if you want to take one away because of his alleged PED use, it seems overkill to take away the other.

1. Barry Bonds

Predicted percentage: 44 percent

No. 1 outfielder and player not in the Hall of Fame

If Barry Bonds had retired at age 33 after the 1998 season — supposedly when he got the idea to start juicing — he would have had a career where he hit .290/.411/.556 with 400 homers, 400 steals, eight Gold Gloves and three MVP awards. He would have been a first-ballot Hall of Famer and remembered as one of the greatest in the game’s history.

Instead, Bonds did not retire. He went on to hit .306/.505/.712 with 351 more homers. He broke the single-season home run record. He broke the career home run record. He won four straight MVP awards. He was so good that he broke the game — managers intentionally walked him 120 times in one season. And now he can’t get even 50 percent of the Hall of Fame vote.

As Morpheus once said: Fate, it seems, is not without a sense of irony.

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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, NBCSports.com and NBC Sports App)

    “Winning a championship,” he says, “it just means that, you know, you go to bed Sunday night and know, hey, you did it. You beat the best in the world. And we’re the champions … at least until they start racing again. I guess that’s what it comes down to. That’s about the longest a win can last in this sport.”

    Edwards has had his share of championship heartbreak, beginning with his loss to Tony Stewart in 2011. The two were actually tied in points after an epic duel at Homestead, but the championship went to Stewart because he won more races than Edwards that year. NBCSN has shown that race this week, and Edwards admitted that he watched maybe 10 minutes of it. After that, he was so motivated he was ready to jump in a race car immediately.

    There were other close calls, but now, he’s back, and he will not pretend that it’s just another week. When someone asked all four drivers if they were going to try and treat this week differently from other weeks, the other three guys said, “No.” They talked about how you have to treat this race like any other, prepare the same way. Edwards had a different answer.

    “For me,” Edwards said, “I’m going to be honest, this week does feel different. I mean, yes, we do have to go do the same job, like these guys said. But for me, each moment, I almost have to pinch myself, like, ‘Hey, this is really it, we’re getting to do this.’ So this is more excitement for me personally.”

    “Would winning a championship change your self-perception?”

    “Well, yeah, it would be great. I think it would be great … you can print that. It would be great for a different reason for me at this point in my career, though. I’m starting to just realize how difficult this is.

    “As far as self-perception, probably like most race car drivers, I kind of have an ego problem already. So that could put me over the edge, honestly.”

    Edwards’ advantage could be the track. He has won the pole twice at Homestead and has won the race twice, finishing top five five times in his 12 starts. He just won at Texas, which is a similar track that uses a similar tire setup. “There’s not a better race track,” he says. “Statistically, this is as good as it gets for me.”

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    And his dirt-track background sets him up well too. The toughest part of competing in a winner-take-all race is that you have to find a way to win no matter what gets thrown your way. In other races throughout the season, you just do the best you can with what fate deals you. There is always more than one winner in a regular season NASCAR race. There’s the driver that takes the checkered flag, but there are also those who had to overcome numerous problems, mechanical issues, tire trouble, poor pit stops, whatever, and somehow finished seventh or 10th or something like that. Every week, you will hear drivers and crew chiefs say happily, “We got the most out of our car today.”

    But for the four drivers left in the Chase, that’s not really an option on Sunday. It’s all about winning.

    “Carl’s real good at driving through the limits and being able to compensate for something not being right the with the car,” his teammate and competitor Kyle Busch says. “He’s able to make more out of it. So that sets him up pretty well.”

    “I think that comes from his dirt background,” Johnson says. “He’s used to dealing with cars that just weren’t exactly right.”

    “Yeah, that’s nice for people to say,” Edwards himself says. “But this is NASCAR, you have the best drivers in the world, they’re ALL good at making the most of their car. The other three drivers in the Chase are incredible. I don’t really think I have an advantage in that. All of us are good at that.

    “I do feel like, yeah, I like the challenge. I feel like if they would spray the track down with water and said, ‘OK, everybody race,’ I would enjoy that struggle. … But I’ll enjoy this week no matter what. It’s fun. This is what I like.”

    One for the history books

    MIAMI — There is a funny thing about sports dreams. You know, the kind you have when you’re a little kid. You dream about hitting the game-winning home run. You dream about catching the game-winning touchdown pass, or swishing the game-winning basket, or scoring the game-winning goal, or making the putt that wins you the Masters.

    Few of us ever get to do it, of course. But that’s not the funny part.

    The funny part is that the people who DO get to do it, well, they find that it isn’t exactly like the dreams. Take Jimmie Johnson. He has won six NASCAR Sprint Cup Championships. Six. Only two men — Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt with seven — have any idea what that’s like. But to be realistic, even they don’t know EXACTLY what it is like because the sport has grown so much bigger, the money has grown so much bigger, the pressure has grown so much bigger. So many people are counting on you. So many people are rooting against you. Gigantic companies have many millions of dollars at stake.

    And so even though this is all Jimmie Johnson ever wanted — to be the best race car driver — those first five championships felt nothing at all like his childhood dreams. He didn’t even ENJOY them, not in the way we understand the word “enjoy.” Yes, he was very proud of what he and his team did. Yes, he thrilled in the racing, the speed, the challenge, the victories, the opportunities that came with being the best stock-car driver in the world. But it wasn’t fun, if that makes sense. It wasn’t that innocent joy that went along with all those childhood daydreams, that feeling of the world going in slow motion, that intoxicating blur of champagne and happiness and wonder. He would stay up at night, staring at the ceiling, thinking about how he could stay on top.

    In 2013, when Johnson was 38 years old and won his sixth championship, the feeling was closer to what he had hoped. By then, Johnson had let go of a lot of things, a lot of the insecurities. He had stopped worrying so much about pleasing everyone. But even that wasn’t EXACTLY what he had dreamed about.

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    “You’re like, ‘Wow, this is nutty, this is stressful, can I do it?'” Johnson says. “You have all of these things weighing you down. When I won those first few championships, it wasn’t fun AT ALL. There was always more to do, you know? In ’13, it definitely felt different. I felt different. That was the most fun I’ve ever had racing for a championship by far.

    “Still, some days, you wish you could feel that thing you wanted as a kid, you know, that place you see in the movies or hear about in stories, and it is surreal, and the world stops and time stops, and it is perfect.”

    So that’s what this time is about. Johnson is 41 years old. He’s a legend of the sport. He has won six championships and 79 races and more than $150 million in prize money. He has won multiple races every year since he was a rookie. The legacy, if such a thing matters, is secure.

    And so, this race is for him.

    “I feel different going into this championship than I have ever felt before, there’s absolutely no doubt about that,” Johnson says. “As weird as it may sound, I’m more comfortable in my own skin than I’ve ever been. And that’s a major player. I have nothing to prove to anyone, and I don’t care what other people think. I really don’t. I’m racing this weekend for me and my family and my team. I don’t have any outside baggage that’s on me. That was other years. There was plenty of that stuff. None of that matters to me anymore.”

    He endured an odd year. It began like most Jimmie Johnson years do — he won in Atlanta in the second race of the year and followed that up three weeks later with a win at Fontana. And then he and his team went into a bit of slump. In a 15-race span, he finished in the top five four times while finishing 20th or worse six times. He and his crew chief Chad Knaus struggled week to week. There was the talk — which has grown louder the last couple of years — that Johnson was close to the end. “I definitely missed driving up front,” Johnson says.

    Watch: NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship (Sunday at 1:30 p.m. ET on NBC, NBCSports.com and NBC Sports App)

    Then came the Chase and it has been absolutely perfect. He breezed into the second round, then won the first race, Charlotte, to automatically move into the third round. He promptly won the first race of the third round, in Martinsville, to qualify for Sunday’s final four. Johnson’s team has had two stress-free weeks to prepare the car for this final race, and while nobody knows if that will make a difference, well, it can’t hurt.

    And Johnson is just enjoying it. “I’m excited,” he says. “And I’m fresh. I don’t know if it will change as we get closer to the race, if the nerves will come. But I don’t think it will.”

    He is well aware, of course, that winning this title would tie him with Earnhardt and Petty for most championships — so aware of it that ever since he won the race in Charlotte he has been wearing a helmet with Petty and Earnhardt’s photos on it and the words “Drive for Seven.” He says that if he could tie those two legends of the sport, it would mean the world to him because it would connect him to history.

    But, again, he promises not to let that inflate into pressure.

    “I never race for stats,” he says. “I’ve never raced for stats, for fame, for money. I’ve just always loved racing. I feel like I’m more in touch with that, in tune with that, than I’ve ever been in my career.

    “I think about those dreams I had as a kid, dreams all of us have in our own way I suppose. I guess I want that moment. I’ve done this for a long time. And I’d love to have that moment.”

    Promises, promises

    MIAMI — Two years ago, Joey Logano showed up for his shot at destiny … and he was scared out of his mind. He doesn’t like to say it that way. He would prefer to just say, “I was nervous. Because I didn’t know what was happening. And I think that’s where nerves are going to come from.”

    He was just 24 years old then and he was trying to join Jeff Gordon and Bill Rexford as the only two drivers to win a championship before turning 25 years old. But it was different for Logano. He’d been preordained to be NASCAR’s next superstar ever since he was a teenager. “Sliced bread,” they called him — as in “best thing since …” — and while he sort of got a kick out of the nickname and the expectations when he was a kid, those things soon felt like an anchor tied to his waist.

    “Sliced bread,” people would mutter savagely every time he finished out of the top five.

    “Sliced bread,” people would taunt him because he won just three races in his first five full seasons.

    “Sliced bread,” other drivers would mock when they felt like Logano pushed his aggressiveness too far.

    Then in 2014, it finally came together for Logano. He won five times. He came to Homestead with a real chance to win the championship … only he readily admits that his head just wasn’t in the right place. “I couldn’t settle my mind down,” he says. “I was thinking about what could happen … or what’s going to happen … what’s the week going to look like … what’s the feeling on Sunday going to be … what is it going to feel like like getting in the car … do I have what it takes?”

    Here Logano smiles. He’s famous for that smile.

    Watch: NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship (Sunday at 1:30 p.m. ET on NBC, NBCSports.com and NBC Sports App)

    “I think that’s the big one. ‘Do I have what it takes?’ I didn’t know then. I know now.”

    “What do you know?” 

    “I know the challenge ahead. I’m prepared for that. I’m ready for that, ready for the pressure. I’m more than ready, I’m excited about it. I’m genuinely pumped. It’s like a complete 180 from last time I was here.”

    There are times when it feels like Logano has been racing forever — and he HAS been racing full time since 2009 — but he’s still just 26 years old. He’s five years younger than Jimmie Johnson was when he won the first of his so-far six championships, three years younger than Dale Earnhardt when he won his first of seven. And he’s five years younger than any of the other drivers in the Chase this year.

    And it’s the combination of youth and experience that makes him unique … and dangerous. NASCAR people will tell you: Young drivers go FAST. The great Junior Johnson used to say, “They don’t know no better — they haven’t hit the wall yet.” So younger drivers push closer to the edge than might be prudent out of youthful exuberance and daring. That makes them go extremely fast, yes, but then they tend to burn out (or spin out or get spun out).

    Logano has that speed. But he has more or less stopped burning out.

    “When you’re flirting with the edge, you’re going to step over it from time to time,” Jimmie Johnson says. “And he has. I think he’s figured out how to inch his way up to the edge instead of flying over it like he did three or four years ago.”

    “For me,” Carl Edwards says, “a switch has gone off the last couple of years for Joey. He’s just so fast everywhere. I have a feeling he’s going to be VERY fast on Sunday. He’s hungry. He wants this very badly. You could argue that he doesn’t have a lot of experience or whatever but I’ve been around long enough. I’ve watched how he’s been approaching this. I think he’s got a ton of confidence.”

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    The other three drivers talk a lot about handling whatever adversity comes this week, being patient, always, in the immortal words of NASA legend Gene Kranz, “Working the problem.” Logano talks about these things too, but more he talks about being aggressive … and being aggressive … and when that doesn’t work, to keep being aggressive.

    “Attack all day,” Logano says of the gameplan. “That’s it. It’s the way our team is. It has been for the last three years or whatever. That’s what we found to be successful for us. Race aggressively. Attack every minute. I start the race and say, ‘I’m here to win,’ and I have that ‘I will not get beat’ attitude throughout the race. Whether that’s good or bad, well, it’s different for other people. Probably it’s a lot different. But it works for us.”

    And when you ask him how he will deal with the frustration that might come with a poor pit stop or a car that won’t quite adjust to conditions or the ever-changing conditions of the track, he smiles again.

    “Frustration is OK,” he says. “It’s OK as long as it’s channeled in the right way. But there’s never that feeling of ‘We’re just not going to win today. It’s just not our day. We suck.’ There’s never that feeling. Because I know we don’t suck. I know I’m a very good race car driver. I know I have a very good race team. And I know we can handle this.”

    The Magic Man

    MIAMI — The wonderful thing about the press conference for the NASCAR Championship Four — just three days before the big race — is that you have all four of the contending drivers sitting on the stage side by side. And because they are sitting next to each other, you can get just a small feel for how they feel about each other and their chances and everything else coming into the winner-take-all final race.

    Joey Logano, for instance, is totally pumped up, super happy. Why not? He won last week to become one of the four drivers to have a chance to win a championship Sunday. This is the dream, man.

    Jimmie Johnson seems calm, beyond calm, like he’s done this whole thing a million times before, which is pretty close to true.

    Carl Edwards looks a bit dazed, but in the best of ways. He’s 37 years old now and he has won 28 races and more than $80 million, but he has never won a Sprint Cup Championship. He looks like a guy in a dream.

    And then there’s Kyle Busch. He looks, um, lethargic.

    “Do you guys like each other?” someone asks the group.

    “Kyle,” Logano says, “we’ll let you answer that.”

    Watch: NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship (Sunday at 1:30 p.m. ET on NBC, NBCSports.com and NBC Sports App)

    Busch looks out with a bit of a bewildered expression, as if someone has just woken him up from a nap. “I am exhausted,” he would say later. And when asked why, he would say, “I am always exhausted.”

    “Do you like each other?” was the question to the group.

    “Right now, yes,” Busch says. “In about 25 seconds, no.”

    Kyle Busch has the aura now. For so many years, he was the guy with unlimited potential, the impossibly talented driver who won a lot of races but always should have won more. Busch himself bought into the hype. He lashed out. He got into numerous dust-ups. Fans loathed him. He beat himself up continuously. In the words of his team owner Joe Gibbs: “He always felt like he was letting himself and his team down, like he wasn’t living up to his great talent.”

    Last year, it all changed. What a year that was. Busch got into a wreck at Daytona that threatened to end his entire season — for a brief time it seemed like his career might be in danger. Even once the doctors got a handle on his condition, Busch was supposed to be out for a minimum six months. Three months later he was standing — wobbly but standing — in the hospital room when his wife Samantha gave birth to their son Brexton.

    Then he came back to the track … and he was essentially unbeatable. In a beautiful five-week span, he won at Sonoma, at Kentucky, at Loudon and finally at the Brickyard 400 in Indianapolis — his first major victory. He won so much that he easily qualified for the Chase even though he’d missed 11 races. Then he made it to the final four, and he ran away to victory at Homestead for his first championship. In the last few laps, he was singing the theme song for “Vocabularry” — his infant son’s favorite TV show.

    A magical year like that, yeah, it changes a person.

    “No,” he says now, “it doesn’t feel a whole lot different.”

    A magical year like that, um, it sort of changes a person?

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    “Well, look, it hasn’t been terribly different on the racing side,” Busch says. “Personally, with Brexton at home and stuff like that, that’s different. Having him come to all the races, that’s pretty fun. We certainly enjoy the time that we have on the road. But, you know, I’m just me.”

    So, OK, maybe a magical year like that doesn’t change a person — but don’t tell the other drivers that. They see a different Kyle Busch. There was always a saying in the garages about Kyle Busch during those years when he could not quite put everything together: If he ever wins a championship, watch out.

    Now that he’s won one, yes, watch out.

    “He just has so much confidence now, you can see it,” Johnson says. “I mean, he was always a confident guy, but it’s different, I think. Now, he’s a champion. Now, he KNOWS.”

    That is exactly the thing that is apparent as Kyle Busch sits off to the side during the press conference — it’s like he’s separate from the other three. He knows. He’s the defending champion. He’s the closest thing this Chase has to a favorite. He’s the guy in the best position to take over this sport, to be the new Dale Earnhardt, the new Bobby Allison, the new Richard Petty. A year ago, after he won his championship, he boldly said he’d like to win 10 in a row. When people laughed, he made it clear that he wasn’t joking.

    “It’s not about what we did last year,” he says. “We’ve already got that one. It’s in the bag. This is about going out there THIS one. It’s one race. It doesn’t matter what the situation is this week, doesn’t matter what comes your way, you have to figure out a way to win.”

    That, more than anything, might be what makes Kyle Busch the favorite. Right now, there is no stock-car driver anywhere who can make more out of less than Kyle Busch. Just last week in Phoenix, he had a tepid car that was running around 15th for most of the race. Through sheer relentlessness, a few adjustments on the car and a bit of driving brilliance — especially on restarts (Busch is a wonder on restarts) — they somehow finished second and could have won.

    “Oh, Kyle can make some magic,” Johnson says. “And knowing him, I’ll bet he will on Sunday.”

    No more fun and games

    Cam Newton, at his best, is a magical player. He does things that blow minds. He throws 30-yard darts that slip by defensive backs before they can react. He avoids sacks not so much by eluding them as by simply standing up through them, a brick house in the Big Bad Wolf’s wind. Newton takes off running and in the open field he is both halfback and fullback, able at times to split defenders in two the way Gale Sayers could, able at other times to blast through a defender, not unlike the way Neo blasts through Agent Smith at the end of “The Matrix.”

    This is Newton at his height, when the conditions are right, when his team is playing great and the opponent is in retreat and, as the Magic 8-Ball says, “All signs point to yes.”

    This was Newton last year for a 15-1 Panthers team that went to the Super Bowl.

    Something has changed this year, of course. That part is obvious. It isn’t that Newton is playing badly. His numbers are down, yes, and the Panthers are 3-6 and in last place. But he’s still among the top five or 10 quarterbacks out there. And there have been a few familiar moments. He threw for four touchdown passes against San Francisco. He has had a couple of dazzling runs. He has put his team in position to win for the most part, including last week against Kansas City. It isn’t like Newton suddenly forgot how to play football … he’s still Cam Newton.

    But something has obviously changed.

    What? There are a few clear possibilities. The Panthers’ defense was otherworldly last year, forcing turnover after turnover, setting up Newton and his offense with golden opportunities time and again. That has more or less stopped this year. The Panthers are starting inside their own 20-yard line more often. This has affected the Panthers’ offense generally and Newton specifically. He’s thrown only 10 touchdown passes this year. All the numbers are down.

    On offense, the line has been beat-up and inconsistent, and that has knocked Newton off his game. He has thrown off his back foot more often, and that usually leads to bad things. It did last week when the Panthers seemed about ready to put away Kansas City — a retreating Newton threw a pick-six that put Kansas City back in a game that should have been over. Newton has dealt with injuries, too — he missed the game against Tampa Bay, and he wasn’t himself in others.

    Watch: Saints vs. Panthers on Thursday Night Football (7:30 p.m. ET on NBC, NBCSports.com and NBC Sports app)

    And, perhaps most of all, teams have been taking their free shots at him at every turn. Newton is 6-foot-5, 245 pounds and a great runner, so teams obviously have to tackle him hard. But there’s no question opponents have taken this to an extreme this season. They have hit Newton late a few times, stolen some shots to the head, unloaded some knockout blows. And, for the most part, there have been no penalties to accompany the hits, possibly BECAUSE Newton is so big and powerful.

    This has driven Newton to distraction. Newton seems to believe the whole world is ganging up on him. A couple of weeks ago, he flatly said that the late hits are “really taking the fun out of the game for me. At times I don’t even feel safe.”

    Newton has a beef. But more to the point here, all of this leads to this rather simple theory that I have about Cam Newton.

    He needs to be having fun to play his best football.

    And this year, he’s just not having any fun.

    Great athletes tend to feed off different motivations. Some want to be loved. Some seem to get a huge kick out of being despised. Some are motivated by fear, others by anger, still others by fame and fortune. Tom Brady, for instance, STILL seems to motivate himself by disrespect (you might have heard that he was selected in the sixth round of the NFL draft) even though it has been years since anybody disrespected him (Roger Goodell aside). Meanwhile, a player like Carolina’s impeccable linebacker Luke Kuechly seems to motivate himself through the daily challenge of figuring out how to break up an offense — it is like a puzzle for him.

    Newton apparently grazes off joy. He wears the hats. He does the dances. He gives away the footballs. The bigger the lead, the more fun he has, the better he plays. The louder the crowd, the more fun he has, the higher he soars. This is part of what makes Newton such a joy; through it all, he PLAYS football the way kids PLAY football. It’s a game. And it’s so much fun when everything is working and everyone has come together.

    This is something people around the Carolina team have noticed for years. There have been times that people inside the organization have wondered if Newton could be serious enough to become a great NFL quarterback. Soon enough they realized that it was the wrong question, realized that being serious doesn’t suit him or his play. You probably noticed how serious Newton looked in the Super Bowl last year. That didn’t turn out well.

    Marty Schottenheimer is one of the many coaches who noted that you can’t have fun in the NFL if you lose. The Panthers are coming off one of their worst losses in recent franchise history, a complete giveaway to the Chiefs. Their playoff situation looks pretty dire — Carolina might have to win out. The key will be getting Newton to start having fun again.

    The remarkable rise of Andy Murray

    For years, there was this fun argument going on about Tiger Woods and Roger Federer. The argument assumed that both men are the best who ever played golf and tennis (an open debate, obviously). And it led to one question: Who is better at their sport?

    The argument never really went anywhere because for every point (golf requires beating the WHOLE field rather than one opponent at a time), there was a counterpoint (one mediocre/bad day in golf does not sink a golfer’s chances, but it can end a tennis player’s tournament).

    For every factor that points to the difficulty of golf (it is so mentally challenging that even the great golfers will miss cuts with some regularity — Phil Mickelson missed 11 in his career) there is another that points to the difficulty of tennis (it is so physically grueling that many of the greatest players — John McEnroe, Bjorn Borg, Martina Hingis, Justine Henin, Mats Wilander, on and on — won their last Grand Slam singles title by the time they turned 25 years old).

    Anyway, it was fun to talk about, even if it never really led anywhere. But there is something that does seem to be emerging about the wonderful dominance of Woods and Federer. You might call the two effects “dishearten” and “hearten.”

    All of this, eventually, will take us to Andy Murray. Hopefully.

    Tiger Woods was such a force in golf that he disheartened his opponents. He broke their spirit. They could not beat him, not when he was on his game, not when he was slightly off his game and, quite often, not even when he was very much off his game. There’s an old Jack Nicklaus line that is even more true for Woods: He knew he would beat you, you knew he would beat you, and he knew that you knew he would beat you.

    FIfty-eight times, Woods was either in the lead or tied for the lead going into the final round. He won 54 of them. He won the first 14 major tournaments he led after 54 holes.

    And how did this uncommon mastery of a sport that is supposed to defy mastery affect other golfers? It crushed them. Sure, there were supremely talented golfers in Woods’ time, several who are in the World Golf Hall of Fame. But let’s put it this way — from the time when Woods broke onto the scene and breezed to the 1997 Masters title to when he won the U.S. Open on one leg, there were 46 major championships.

    Tiger Woods won 14 of them, as mentioned.

    The other 32 majors? Well, 25 different golfers won those 32 majors. Vijay Singh and Phil Mickelson won three. Mark O’Meara, Retief Goosen and Ernie Els won two each. Those five terrific players — four already in the Hall of Fame with only Goosen waiting — won fewer majors than Woods COMBINED. And the other 20 majors were won by 20 different golfers. It’s a clear pattern: Everyone would show up at the majors with the hope that Woods was way off his game. Then, and only then, did they have a chance.

    His magnificence was unassailable. It was meant to be enjoyed and feared but not challenged. The best golfers on earth not named Tiger Woods had to console themselves with the huge sums of money that Tiger brought into the sport and the hope that maybe someday he would stop winning everything and leave some tournaments for everyone else.

    So, yes, Tiger Woods was disheartening.

    Roger Federer, somehow, was the opposite. He was every bit as dominant as Woods — the numbers are even more striking. From 2003, when Federer won his first Wimbledon to 2010 when he took the Australian Open, there were 27 Grand Slam tournaments. Federer won 16 of them, more than half, and reached the final in another six. The only other tennis players to win Grand Slams in Roger’s time: Rafael Nadal, who won six, and five others who managed one each.

    But it was different somehow. There was something magnanimous about Federer’s beautiful game, something that opened up possibilities in the minds of other tennis players. Golfers would see Tiger Woods hit miracle shots out of trouble and make every important putt he looked at and they would think: NO SHOT. But Federer would hit some implausible running forehand winner or spin a drop-volley with such touch that it would not even bounce, and the other tennis players would think: I WANT TO DO THAT!

    That begins with Nadal, of course. He seemed to be just the latest in a long line of Spanish and Latin American clay-court specialists — Sergi Brugera, Gustavo Kuerten, Gaston Gaudio, Albert Costa, Juan Carlos Ferrera — who would show up at the French Open to win and then disappear like top-spinning swallows of Capistrano.

    Nadal, though, was stirred to take his game to a higher place. He has spoken eloquently about how the inspiration of Federer took him there. Nadal has won all four major championships and 14 Grand Slam tournaments in all — he has his place now in the inner circle of all-time tennis greats. His rivalry with Federer might just be the greatest in tennis history. Nadal has controlled it for the most part with shots that kick up high and attack Fed’s backhand like wasps. Still, their tennis has lifted the sport.

    Novak Djokovic was next. He had both Federer AND Nadal to contend with, something that certainly could have left him entirely discouraged. At times, he did indeed seem discouraged. Djokovic does not have quite the grace or touch of Federer nor the ferocious power of Nadal. He found his own path — foot speed, instincts, hitting balls on the rise, imposing return of serve and sheer ambition. He has now won 12 Grand Slam titles, including the career Grand Slam. He has a winning record against both Federer and Nadal. He too has a place in tennis’ inner circle.

    All of which brings us to Andy Murray. He has been around a long time. It is tempting to think that Murray is younger than he is, but he was born in the same month as Djokovic (Murray is actually a week older). He is less than a year younger than Nadal. He played in his first Wimbledon in 2005. He has endured more or less the ENTIRE period of Roger and Rafa and Novak’s dominance.

    He did not just endure that dominance, he was repeatedly smacked down by their dominance. The first 10 times he reached at least a Grand Slam semifinal, he was knocked out by Nadal (four times), Federer (three times) or Djokovic (two times)*. If anyone had good reason to grudgingly accept that he was born at just the wrong time, it was Murray.

    *He was also beaten once in a semi by Andy Roddick, another slap in the face — he couldn’t even be the best ANDY on the court that day.

    And Murray seemed, well, to put it delicately, just the type of person who would grudgingly accept that he was born at just the wrong time. Murray in 2008, when he was 21 years old and had not yet won a single significant tournament (no offense to the Qatar Open) nor reached the final of a Grand Slam event, wrote an autobiography called “Hitting Back.” Nobody was entirely sure WHY he wrote an autobiography at that time, but he did indeed hit back — at British tennis, at the media members who doubted him (he was refusing to even talk to the BBC at the time) and at the unfair obstacles he seemed sure that everyone was putting in his way and his way alone. He came across as a very angry young man, though nobody was entirely sure why.

    Then, maybe the answer why was obvious. Federer was majestic then. Nadal was ascendant. Djokovic won the Australian Open that very year. There seemed to be no room in the tennis world for Andy Murray, and he seemed to know it.

    So what happened from there? The book kept getting updated as Murray began growing up. The paperback version of that book was called “Coming of Age.” And then the book title was updated and titled  “Seventy-Seven: My Road to Wimbledon Glory.” That happened in 2013, after Murray broke the 77-year British drought and won Wimbledon. By then, he was a different tennis player and a different man. He had won the Olympics in London. He won the U.S. Open that year. He had found himself.

    And I would argue that it was, once again, the inspiration of Federer, who inspired Nadal, who inspired Djokovic, who inspired Murray. Andy improved everything about his game. And he did it by building up every single part of his game. He doesn’t really do anything specifically better than the rest of the world. But you know those Sprint commercials where Sprint basically admits it’s not QUITE as good as Verizon, but it’s 99 percent as good for half the price?

    Murray doesn’t quite have Djokovic’s return of serve (no one in tennis history does) or his pure speed — but it’s probably 99 percent.

    Murray doesn’t quite have Nadal’s bullfighter tenacity — win or die with honor — but he’s probably at 99 percent.

    Murray doesn’t quite have Federer’s ability to hit the “gaga shot” that tilts an opponent’s head the same way shaking a pinball machine does — but he’s probably at 99 percent.

    In other words, at least as I see it, Murray created a game that is like an homage to those masters he has been trying to beat. He does a little bit of everything, and he brings along some of that youthful rage and intensity, and here he is: Murray is now the No. 1 player in the world.

    It is unclear if he will stay at No. 1 for very long. Djokovic seems worn down by his own extraordinary rise, but he has still made the final of nine of the last 11 Grand Sam tournaments, winning six of them. Djokovic also dominated the head-to-head matchups between them, winning 24 of 34 matches and eight of the 10 times they played in Grand Slams. It seems a pretty good bet that he will be back, and so this could be just a Murray blip, a fluke of timing.

    Or it could be more. Either way, for Murray to reach No. 1 after all these years is an extraordinary thing.

    When Tiger Woods hit the golf scene, you will remember there was a lot of talk about the generation of golfers he would give rise to, the young golfers who, seeing what he was doing, would find a way to take golf even higher. We might be seeing that with golfers like Rory McIlroy and Jason Day and Jordan Spieth, though it is too early to tell.

    Federer’s impact is clearer. He came into the sport during a lull, just as the Pete Sampras-Andre Agassi era was ending, and he played sublime and previously unimaginable tennis. And his tennis genius has helped create three of the greatest tennis players who ever lived. I’m sure he didn’t mean to do that. But, hey, who DOESN’T want to be Roger Federer?