Bad process

Here we go again, back into the Baseball Hall of Fame unanimity problem, this time with Ken Griffey. Honestly, who would not vote Ken Griffey into the hall of fame? The man hit 630 home runs, won 10 Gold Gloves and was a source of constant joy in baseball’s angst era. Who would not vote that guy into the hall of fame?

Well, as we all know, a handful of people won’t vote him in for reasons that undoubtedly sound better before they are verbalized. Griffey will get 97 percent or 98 percent of the vote and the few who do not vote for him will either hide or offer somewhat baffling justifications. When it’s done, many will point out again that it doesn’t matter anyway. Ken Griffey will get elected to the hall of fame by a landslide. Who cares if it isn’t unanimous? Does it make the Baseball Hall of Fame less meaningful because Griffey — or Willie Mays or Babe Ruth or Henry Aaron — were not elected unanimously?

Maybe not. But it is annoying. How in the world did someone not vote for Frank Robinson? For Mickey Mantle? For Cal Ripken? That question cuts to the bone of an organization I’m very much a part of, the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA). How can we claim to be the best arbiter for the Hall of Fame when 15 among us didn’t even vote for Greg Maddux?

Here’s the thing: The BBWAA came really close one year to ending this whole stupid “No player has ever been elected unanimously” nonsense more than 20 years ago. So, so close.

We’ll get to that in a bit. First, a quick history of the fruitless hall of fame chase of unanimity.

* * *

For trivia buffs, there actually has been one player elected unanimously into the Baseball Hall of Fame. In 1939, the BBWAA held a special election during the Winter Meetings and voted in Lou Gehrig. There was a lot of emotion surrounding Gehrig then, of course. He was dying of ALS. This was just months after he would give his “Luckiest Man” speech. The actor Joe E. Brown — who would gain most of his fame for being the guy in “Some Like it Hot” to say, ‘Well, nobody’s perfect” — made public and private pleas to honor Gehrig. The writers did.

Now, they said it was a unanimous vote, but I have my doubts. The numbers were never released. In 1973, there was a similarly emotional special election for Roberto Clemente, who died three months earlier in a plane crash. Those votes were announced, 393 voted for Clemente, 29 voted no, two abstained. I suspect (hope?) that the 29 who voted no on Clemente were not referring to his play or his character but instead voicing their belief that there shouldn’t be a special election. I imagine there were some writers in 1939 who did not want a special election in Gehrig’s case either, but the organization presented a united and unanimous front.

Other than the Gehrig anomaly, no player has ever been elected unanimously in the long history of the hall of fame. Ty Cobb was left off four ballots in the first election. Rogers Hornsby was left off 51 ballots. Lefty Grove was left off 38. Joe DiMaggio was not even elected the first two times his name was on the ballot, and in the year he was elected he was left off 28 ballots.

But, to be fair, Hall of Fame voting was confusing in those days. Nobody seemed entirely sure who was eligible, who was not eligible, who was on the ballot, who was not on the ballot. The reason people kept passing on DiMaggio, for instance, is because there was no official rule for how long a player had to wait after retirement to be enshrined. There was a guideline of five years, but it wasn’t written down. DiMaggio was only retired for two years the first time he was on the ballot (he got 44 percent), three years the second time (69 percent), four years the time he was elected (88.8 percent).

The official five-year waiting period was put in place just after DiMaggio.

* * *

Modern hall of fame voting — which is to say voting more or less like we know it today — began in 1962. That year, many thought that Bob Feller had a chance to be elected unanimously. Feller was more than just a great pitcher, he was a baseball archetype: Iowa farm boy; grew up playing catch with his Dad; signed for an autographed baseball; threw harder than anybody before him; pitched in the Majors before he graduated high school; volunteered for the Navy the day after Pearl Harbor and so on. In his day, Feller was as famous as DiMaggio or Ted Williams.

As it turned out, Feller was left off 10 ballots — there was some suspicion at the time that Feller’s sometimes unwelcome bluntness (the week of his election, he appeared in a story criticizing the hall of fame process) cost him the chance to be elected unanimously.

Then … Feller wasn’t the guy on that ballot who should have been elected unanimously. I love this paragraph from The Sporting News, previewing the hall of fame vote:

“Among the more prominent players eligible for the first time are Bob Feller, the strikeout artist of the Cleveland Indians; Jackie Robinson, who played second base for the Brooklyn Dodgers, and Phil Rizzuto, former shortstop of the New York Yankees.”

Jackie Robinson, who played second base for the Brooklyn Dodgers …

Yes, that’s what made Jackie Robinson special. Also considered were Jonas Salk, a longtime medical researcher, Rosa Parks, a seamstress in an Alabama department store, and Dwight Eisenhower, a brevet Lieutenant Colonel during World War I.

Robinson did not come close to being a unanimous choice. In fact, he was barely was elected in that 1962 election, finishing just four votes about the 75 percent line.

In 1966, the unanimous candidate was Ted Williams, Teddy Ballgame, the Splendid Splinter, the greatest hitter who ever lived, the god who did not answer letters and so on. It is hard to imagine any hall of fame voter looking at the career of Ted Williams and saying, “Yeah, he was a good, but he falls a little short for me.”

But before the vote even happened, alert baseball fans already knew he would not be elected unanimously. The Sporting News polled 26 hall of fame voters before the announcement, and found that only 25 voted for Williams. The other, without reservation (and without revealing his identity), said that he would never vote for Williams because of a personal grudge he held. Well, OK then, as long it’s just a personal grudge. Williams fell 20 votes shy, each of those undoubtedly for similarly sound reasons.

Three years later, Stan Musial came on the ballot. Stan the Man. He, more than Feller or even Williams, seemed the perfect candidate to get every single vote. As a player, his career was beyond reproach. At his retirement, he had the most hits, total bases, doubles, RBIs and almost anything else in National League history. And as a person, unlike Williams, Stan the Man was universally beloved. It seemed unlikely that anyone had a personal grudge against him. Here was a chance, finally, for harmony.

But, no. There was a trend growing. When Ruth and Ty Cobb and Walter Johnson and Joe DiMaggio and the other Greek Gods of baseball did not get elected unanimously, it was more because of a quirk in the system. But after Feller and Williams, there were those in the BBWAA who started to believe that NO ONE should ever get elected unanimously. And so a group of voters — perhaps working alone or perhaps in concert — decided they would NEVER vote for a player on first ballot. Musial’s name was not checked on 23 ballots, even more than Williams.

Of course, Musial was very Musial about it.

“In this country, the majority rules,” Musial would say. “And that’s a great thing — I’ll go with that!”

Jim Murray’s line: “Oh, it wasn’t unanimous. I guess that guy in New York with all the hair caught him coming out of church one day. A thing like that can hurt you, this generation.”

The “no first-ballot vote” posse reigned for a decade. For the next nine years after Musial, no player got even 90% of the vote, and that included legends like Yogi Berra (not even elected first ballot), Sandy Koufax (52 no votes), Warren Spahn (65), Mickey Mantle (43) and Ernie Banks (62).

And then came Willie Mays.

* * *

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Who in the world would not vote Willie Mays into the hall of fame? The very question boggles the mind. The man could do everything on a baseball diamond, absolutely everything, and he played the game with passion and he carried himself with dignity. He was a pioneer and a genius of the game and as thrilling a player to watch as has ever played.

Before the Willie Mays vote, there was some talk about him being elected unanimously. But there was absolutely no chance of it. The first-ballot posse was still running things and 23 people — probably the same 23 who didn’t vote for Musial — did not check Willie Mays name.

Even Jack Lang, the BBWAA secretary and a persistent apologist for the BBWAA’s tired ways, was shocked and somewhat disgusted.

“If Jesus Christ were a candidate for the hall of fame,” he said, “I don’t believe he’d get a unanimous vote from the 12 apostles.”

How about this: According to Lang, three of the four most prominent baseball writers of the 1950s — people who saw Mays in full flight — did not vote for him. I’ve long tried to figure out who he meant. Lang said: “One of them called me too late, after the votes already had been counted, and said, ‘Hey, I forgot to vote for Willie Mays.’”

Yeah, you know, forgetting your credit card in a restaurant, that I get. Forgetting your car keys in your pants pocket, sure. Forgetting to vote for Willie Mays? That one is harder to figure. Anyway, another bridge was crossed. How can you vote anyone in unanimously after 23 people passed on Willie Mays?

* * *

Henry Aaron had a different story from Willie Mays. Aaron, unlike Mays, had been in the eye of America’s racial hurricane. He had received countless angry, hateful, racist letters as he chased Babe Ruth’s home run record. He had received death threats. Aaron had overcome, broken the record, shined a light on an ugly side of the American story. He did not forget. He kept those letters in boxes.

And so, when it was his turn for hall of fame election, the unanimity question took on a very different tint. When Mays fell 23 votes short of perfection there was little-to-no talk about racism. After all, that was the a similar shortfall to Ted Williams and Musial and Koufax and DiMaggio. But Henry Aaron was the Home Run King, the all-time leader in RBIs and total bases and extra bases (he’s still the leader in those three categories) and anybody who did not vote for him was opening up a serious question of “Why?”

Nine people, as it turned out, did not vote for him.

“I don’t know what the yardstick is for voting,” Aaron said. “It’s not a disappointment that I was not unanimous, but I’d be lying if I said I did not want to be a unanimous choice. … If a player deserves to be in the hall of fame by a unanimous vote, he should be rewarded with it.”

For years, the BBWAA always had danced around these shortfalls. The voters have always been anonymous, purportedly because anonymity frees them to vote with their hearts without public pressure, but after the Aaron vote the organization had to do some public relations. The BBWAA came out with a statement that the nine-vote deficiency had NOT been because of anything racial. And then they offered a small peek inside the voting process that once again confirms that incompetence is often at the heart of the matter.

For one, the organization pointed out that at least one of the people who left Aaron off the ballot did vote for Frank Robinson. In other words, at least one voter was not racist. Illogical, yes. Confused, yes. Ridiculous, yes. But not racist (forty-five voters left Frank Robinson off their ballots, which is a whole other travesty).

The organization said that one “Latin American voter” had only Luis Aparicio on the ballot.

They said another voter — undoubtedly one of the no-first-ballot voters — had just Juan Marichal.

And one non-Aaron voter — my favorite of the bunch — apparently voted for Aparacio and Richie Ashburn, the two names following Aaron on the ballot. The suspicion is that this was a Florida butterfly ballot blunder, with the voters simply showing the inability to line up the player’s name with the box needing to be checked.

So, you can see the unique challenges of getting a unanimous vote from the Baseball Writers or any other large group. Yes, some voters are belligerent. But others are just plain stupid.

* * *

In 1989, Johnny Bench fell 16 shy of unanimous and Carl Yastrzemski fell 24 votes short. Both of those players are obvious hall of famers with no reasonable argument against them, but at the same time neither of them is Willie Mays or Henry Aaron. So the “no player has ever been voted in unanimously” rubbish kept feeding on itself.

“I ask myself, ‘How could anyone not vote for him?’” Pete Rose said of Bench. “But, I guess there’s always somebody who won’t vote for you. They’ll say, ‘Well, even Babe Ruth wasn’t unanimous.’ But that don’t make it right.’”

No, it don’t, but once that boulder starting rolling downhill, players were going to get squashed. In 1995, Mike Schmidt — almost certainly the greatest third baseman in baseball history — fell 16 votes short of unanimous. That was the first year for Jack O’Connell as BBWAA secretary, and he says that when he called to give Schmidt the news that he’d been elected, Schmidt’s response was, “Who were the 16 that didn’t vote for me?”

“I would prefer to tell you who were the 444 who did,” O’Connell said. “But I’m not allowed.”

One of the 16, it should be said, did not hide from his decision to leave Schmidt off the ballot. That was Philadelphia-based writer Bill Brown. He was battling the cancer that would kill him within the year, and he was determined to vote his conscience. Brown said because he had consistently seen Schmidt refuse to sign autographs for kids or help his young teammates, Schmidt was unworthy of his vote. He wrote: “Seldom, if ever, has anyone taken so much from a sport and given so little back and to the community. It was for these reasons that I chose to withhold my vote for Mike Schmidt. I would do it again.”

Agree or disagree, at least this was a thought-out and passionately held view.

“It was an opinion that brought criticism,” read Brown’s obit just months later, “but Mr. Brown stuck by his decision.”

* * *

Let’s talk for a minute about Nolan Ryan. In 1999, Ryan finished just six votes shy of unanimous. He got 98.8 percent of the vote, the same percentage as Tom Seaver (yes, we’re getting to him) as the highest in Hall of Fame history.

Ryan is a fascinating case, and looking at him might get us closer to the heart of this question about why there has never been a unanimous hall of famer. One of the six non-Ryan voters, Bill Conlin, wrote a belligerent column bragging about it. He cited Ryan’s rather pedestrian .526 winning percentage, as if that should have disqualified him from the hall of fame. He also cited the fact that Ryan blew a 5-2 lead in Game 5 of the 1980 National League Championship Series, which was probably the most important game he ever started.

That Game 5 is illustrative of Ryan’s turbulent career. Nolan Ryan was a man of extremes. He probably threw a baseball harder than anyone in baseball history. He was the most unhittable pitcher in baseball history (6.6 hits per nine innings). He is, of course, the all-time leader in strikeouts with more than 5,700 and he threw seven no-hitters, and he was a force of nature for two decades. You simply cannot tell the story of baseball without him.

But despite these extraordinary talents, it is true that he was not the “greatest” pitcher in baseball history. That’s because he also had big ol’ Texas-sized flaws. These came out in Game 5 of the 1980 NLCS.

1. His team was indeed up 5-2 in the eighth inning, but the two runs allowed were pure Ryan runs. Early in the game, he allowed runners to reach second and third with two outs. The Phillies’ No. 8 hitter, Bob Boone, came to the plate. It was a situation where just about anyone would have walked Boone to face Phillies rookie pitcher Marty Bystrom. I’m no fan of the intentional walk, but that’s basically a 100 percent call. Bystrom had one hit all year.

Ryan, though, insisted on pitching to Boone because, well, Nolan Ryan never backed down from a man in his life, and he certainly wasn’t going to back down to Bob Boone, a .229 hitter that year. Well, Boone hit a two-run single. Bystrom, of course, followed with a harmless groundout to second.

2. Then came the eighth inning. Larry Bowa blooped a single to center. Boone came up again and this time grounded the ball back to the pitcher. It was a double-play ground ball but this led to the second of Ryan’s great weaknesses: He was a dreadful fielder. His 90 errors are by far the most of any pitcher in the last 75 years, and he led all pitchers in errors four times in the 1970s. Ryan was unable to field the Boone ground ball and there were runners on first and second.

3. Greg Gross came up. Gross would beat out two bunts in his entire career. This was one of them, a sweet bunt down the third base line. Again this goes back to Ryan’s inability to field. Ryan pitched with such force he simply wasn’t in position to get to the ball. Gross’ bunt loaded the bases.

4. Ryan walked Pete Rose to score a run. Of course, no pitcher in baseball history walked more batters than Nolan Ryan — his 2,795 walks is as unbreakable a record as there is on sports. At that point he was pulled from the game, and the bullpen couldn’t end the threat.

All of this leads to the point: There are no perfect baseball players. Willie Mays came close, but even he made outs almost two-thirds of the time. Williams came close, but he was an often poor and disinterested fielder. Nolan Ryan was the most unhittable pitcher of his time or any time, but he had his flaws. They all have flaws. Those flaws were on display in Game 5, and at least one voter used that as an excuse to not vote Nolan Ryan into the hall of fame.

If you are so inclined, you can always find a reason to not vote somebody into the hall of fame.

A few people in the BBWAA have been so inclined. Cal Ripken fell eight votes shorts. Rickey Henderson fell 28 votes short. Greg Maddux fell 16 votes short. Randy Johnson fell 14 votes short. This year Ken Griffey will fall short, and soon Derek Jeter will fall short, and Mariano Rivera will fall short, and the longer this goes the less likely it is that we will ever see a player go in unanimously.

Thing is … this whole thing could have ended in 1992.

* * *

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Tom Seaver has an argument as the greatest pitcher in baseball history. The way I see it, there are six pitchers who, by the numbers, have a good argument for that No. 1 spot:

— Walter Johnson
— Lefty Grove
— Tom Seaver
— Roger Clemens
— Greg Maddux
— Randy Johnson

True, I’m excluding many legendary pitchers like Pete Alexander and Warren Spahn and Pedro Martinez and Christy Mathewson and the guys who pitched in the 19th Century like Cy Young and Kid Nichols. I’m also excluding some of Seaver’s great contemporaries like Steve Carlton and Gaylord Perry. All great pitchers. For various reasons, I don’t think they have compelling arguments for No. 1. That’s another column.

Walter Johnson is widely viewed as No. 1 and his numbers are untouchable — but he pitched during the Deadball Era, so it’s hard to judge.

Lefty Grove led the league in ERA nine times, this in a big-hitting era, and finished his career a staggering 300-141.

Clemens, well, if you take PEDs out of the picture, I’m not sure there’s a viable argument that Clemens WAS NOT the greatest pitcher ever. But PEDs are in the picture.

Maddux is almost as good as Clemens, without the PED suspicions.

Randy Johnson, I think, is almost as good as Maddux.

All have their case, and Seaver does too. He was breathtaking. The prime was long and spectacular; for a decade, 1967 to 1977, he went 203-113 with a 2.48 ERA, led the league in wins twice, in ERA three times, in strikeouts five times, in WHIP three times, in FIP four times, and he finished Top 5 in WAR every year but one. He led the 1969 Mets to a championship, lugged the no-hit 1973 Mets to the pennant. Even now, he’s sixth in career strikeouts, seventh in shutouts, seventh in WAR and fifth in that interesting statistic Situational Wins Saved. Look it up, you’ll like it.

In other words, Seaver was an excellent candidate to finally be the unanimous hall of fame choice. There was no argument against him. He retired before Clemens, Maddux and Unit really got going, so at the time of his retirement he was certainly one of the top five pitchers ever. Add in that he pitched so much of his career in New York, and he was famous on and off the field, and he had the Tom Terrific nickname — this was our best shot.

In the end, as you might already know, he finished five votes short. So close.

BUT … that’s not where the story ends. Seaver’s election year was 1992, which just so happened to be the year that Pete Rose’s name was also supposed to first appear on the ballot. That would have been some election with Rose and Seaver on the ballot, but it wasn’t meant to be. After Rose was banned from baseball, the Baseball Hall of Fame decided that no permanently banned player should appear on the Hall of Fame ballot. The Hall thought it was making official what had long been an unwritten rule — it seemed obvious to them that any player banned from baseball would also be banned from the hall of fame.

Some members of the BBWAA were outraged. An unwritten rule is not the same as a written rule. Also, before his death, former commissioner Bart Giamatti had made clear his views about Rose and the hall of fame:

“When Pete Rose is eligible,” Giamatti had said after banning Rose, “Mr. Lang will count the ballots, and you will decide whether he belongs in the hall of fame.” And with the word “you” he pointed at all the writers in the room. He intended for the BBWAA to decide.

So, yes, there was some anger about the hall of fame’s decision. There was a strong feeling that the Hall was infringing upon the independence of the BBWAA.

Because of all this, there was a protest vote — 41 writers (9.5 percent) wrote in Pete Rose. These votes didn’t count, but they were announced. But for some voters, just writing in Pete Rose was not a strong enough message. Three writers sent in blank ballots as their own kind of weird protest.

In other words, three of the five people who did not vote for Seaver were those who sent in blank ballots to protest Pete Rose.

That leaves only two people who actually did not vote for Seaver. Well, get this: One of those people had open heart surgery just before he filled out the ballot. He was still woozy — apparently still in the hospital — but he wanted to fill the thing out. He left off Tom Seaver by mistake.

That leaves only ONE PERSON who did not vote for Tom Seaver. And you know why? Right: He was one of those kooky leftovers from the 1970s who still did not vote for first-ballot players.

In other words, it could have happened. Tom Seaver could have been voted in unanimously. And if that had happened, I feel certain that others would have gone in unanimously because the meme would have been destroyed. Maddux probably would have gone in unanimously. Ripken probably would have gone in unanimously. The Big Unit probably would have gone in unanimously.

And this year, Ken Griffey probably would have gone in unanimously. Alas, it didn’t happen for Seaver. It could have been a giant leap for mankind. Sigh. You wonder if it will ever been that close again.

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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.”

    [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?