Kings in the North

LONDON – The tension and pressure are building in north London. Big time.

On Saturday, Tottenham Hotspur welcome bitter rivals Arsenal to White Hart Lane for the most eagerly anticipated North London Derby in Premier League history. Period.

On both sides of the fence, the pressure is palpable, almost unbearable. Both teams are battling for the title in the same season, which has never happened in their rivalry dating back over 130 years.

Former Tottenham Hotspur captain Ledley King, 35 years old, was forced to retire early after chronic knee problems. He still works for Spurs as an ambassador. As a Londoner and one-club man who came through Spurs’ academy system and shined for the first team and England, he’s played in more NLD’s than most.

King says this is the biggest Tottenham vs. Arsenal clash in his lifetime.

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“This is the biggest derby I can remember during my time at Tottenham,” King said. “For the two teams to be so close going into this game at such a late stage of the season, it makes it a huge, huge game. In previous times Arsenal were – especially when I was a lot younger in the first team – a team that were challenging for the league, and we were a team trying to get into Europe, maybe. A mid-table team. We’ve slowly closed the gap each year to a point now where there’s nothing between the two teams.”

Tottenham have the edge going into this clash. With 10 games of the season to go, the two north London clubs are in a four-way battle with little Leicester City and moneybags Manchester City for the title. Leicester lead, but Spurs sit three points back of the diminutive giants, and Arsenal sit three points back of Tottenham.

Watch Arsenal vs. Tottenham Hotspur: Saturday, 7:45 a.m. ET on NBCSN, Live Extra

Nobody would’ve predicted this before this season but Spurs’ ascension has pushed this derby into the forefront of people’s minds. It could be like that for quite some time if Mauricio Pochettino’s young squad is kept together.

“I expect derbies moving forward to have even more depending on the games going into them,” King continued. “That adds a little extra to the game. This will be the biggest. The fans on both sides will generate a massive atmosphere which is going to make a great game.”


Rare title battle between bitter rivals

This title race is great, too.

Two rivals duking it out for the crown rarely happens in the PL. If you look in the history books, neighbors and bitter rivals have barely fought for the title in the PL era. Manchester United and Manchester City have done it a few times over the past five years — with the memorable finale to the 2011-12 season set to live long in the memory — but apart from that, local rivals just haven’t locked horns for the title.

Now they are.

If you look outside of the PL era, of course there have been battles between local rivals, with the famous Liverpool and Everton dominance of the 1980s sticking out, plus the two Manchester clubs once again dominating in the 60s and 70s. But this is a new phenomenon for Arsenal and Tottenham. The latter have won two titles in its history, and during their success in 1951 and ’61, Arsenal languished in mid-table and weren’t battling with them.

During Arsenal’s three Premier League titles, Tottenham didn’t finish in the top six, so this experience of going toe-to-toe for the title is something new to both sets of fans.

Huddled against a brick wall outside Upton Park waiting to get into the stadium before Tottenham’s midweek clash against West Ham, brothers Robb and Glenn (named after Tottenham legend Glenn Hoddle) Ovel weren’t quite sure what to feel.

Excited? Nervous?

“Bit of both really,” Robb said as Glenn, wearing a Notre Dame woolly hat, nodded his head in agreement. “It’s obviously unchartered territory. We’ve never been here before. It is exciting while it lasts because once the TV money comes in next year you don’t know if you’re going to get this kind of chance again.”

“I can’t remember ever being above them!” laughs Glenn before his brother chimes in.

“I can remember us being above them before. But once it gets into the final games of the season we kind of drop away. Hopefully this year that won’t happen and we can push through. We still have some difficult games coming up. If we can get through that, we will be fine.”

Arsenal’s fans are confused too. They don’t quite know what to do. Should they applaud Spurs for challenging them? Legendary figures such as Ian Wright and Thierry Henry have both appeared on British TV praising Spurs through gritted teeth, but Wright also muttered the words: “It isn’t meant to be like this… we rule north London.”

That’s how the Arsenal fans feel too.

Heading into Saturday’s clash, former Spurs captain Gary Mabbutt believes all the pressure is on Arsenal.

“Going into this derby game, the fact that they lost last weekend means that they are under much more pressure than we are,” Mabbutt said. “We can go into this game to play our football, play the game how we want to. The pressure is on Arsenal. They have to get something and that could leave gaps to be exploited. It’s a massive game for both teams. If you look at games between the sides, probably the last time there was a game as big as this was the 1990-91 season when we played Arsenal in the first-ever FA Cup semifinal to be played at Wembley.

“Arsenal were going for the double and we were having a mediocre season but that’s the thing about any game between Tottenham and Arsenal. Whatever the form going into that game, wherever you are in the league table, it all goes out of the window. This is a game you just have to win. It is one of the biggest games of the season for you. Everyone says, ‘Yeah, but it’s the same three points as beating Swansea last week,’ and of course it is. But I think the psychological benefits of beating your biggest rivals and a team of Arsenal or Tottenham’s stature, whichever side you’re on, that has a major benefit.”

Mabbutt, 54, has played in more NLD’s than any Spurs player in history and knows this particular meeting will have a huge say in the title race.

He played for Tottenham for over 16 years, is the second-longest serving player in club history and won the Europa League in 1984 plus captained them to FA Cup glory in 1991. The last time Spurs finished in the top three was in 1989-90. They also finished third in the 1986-87 campaign.

The former England international was at the heart of those Tottenham teams to finish in the top three of the top-flight, and he sees plenty of similarities in this current Spurs team.

“We’ve got a very solid back six really. That allows everyone in front of them, whether that be Mousa Dembele, Christian Eriksen, Erik Lamela, Nabil Bentaleb, Harry Kane, Son (Heung-min) — whoever it is, it allows them to be the opponents on the back foot and use their creativity to cause them problems,” Mabbutt said. “If we lose the ball, we have a solid base behind us to build from. In the 1987 season when we came third, we had a five-man midfield of Glenn Hoddle, Ossie Ardiles, Chrissy Waddle, Paul Allen and Steve Hodge.

“We had Clive Allen up front on his own and that season he scored 49 goals which is still a (Spurs) record in the top-flight, and at the moment, we of course we have a lone ranger in Kane up front on his own. So there are a lot of similarities. I do hope the similarities finish there … because we were the ‘almost’ team! We came third in the league, reached the semifinal of the League Cup, lost the final of the FA Cup and at the end of the season, we didn’t win anything.”

Mabbutt believes the team-first mentality is key among the current squad. Arsenal may have more star names and better individuals, but Spurs’ collective unit is trumping that.

“I believe this team has grown in maturity and grown in stature over the season. Every game I watch I’m seeing a team that is a growing as a team together,” Mabbutt beamed. “The most important factor and characteristic that this team has is we are seeing a team that wants to win together, as a team. Not as individuals. You can see there are some strong characters out there. There is passion out there and they all want to be in this team and want to be winning this together. That, for me, is a vital component of any successful side.”

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Twenty years of Arsenal dominance ending?

Arsenal have been incredibly successful over the past two decades, and don’t Tottenham’s fans know it. In every debate in the office, café or pub, they’re reminded of Arsenal’s dominance.

St. Totteringham’s Day is a curse word among Spurs fans and it has become a yearly tradition for nearly two decades.

What is it? It’s the day where Spurs can mathematically no longer finish above Arsenal and Gooners rejoice and collect their bet money from Spurs-supporting buddies who’d bet them back in August that “this will be the year we finish above you, this is it… .” But it wasn’t, and it hasn’t been since 1995 when Tottenham finished in seventh place and Arsenal slumped to 12th place the season before Arsene Wenger arrived. Then it all changed.

Like taxes and death, the only other certainty of life in north London over the past 20 years has been that Arsenal will finish above Tottenham in the league. Now, though, all that could change.

With Tottenham and Arsenal going head-to-head for the title, going in to work on a Monday morning and sitting alongside an Arsenal fan could be quite an enjoyable experience for Spurs fans. Their neighbors in red are squirming a bit in their office chairs.

The generational certainty could be disrupted.

Over the past week, I’ve caught up with fans of both clubs. Speaking to Arsenal fans outside Old Trafford last week before a loss to an injury-riddled Manchester United that might have damaged their title hopes, “Gooners” were positive Spurs would’ve finish above them and weren’t worried about their ascendance.

“I’m not worried,” said Ronald Bruce, a local government official originally from north London. “They are better this season than they have been for a long time. But I think they have a couple of excellent players. Harry Kane and Dele Alli are playing well. Those are their two standout players. They obviously have a decent goalkeeper because their defense is better than it has been for years. They’ve always been known as being weak defensively. They are a bit more solid nowadays. Worried? No. We’ve got a better squad than them. We’ve got experience and knowhow. That doesn’t mean they can’t learn …”

You will notice, there’s a trend among Arsenal fans I spoke to. First, they totally dismiss Tottenham’s chances of dueling with them for trophies but by the end of their answer, they’re praising their rivals in a backhanded manner and the conviction in their voice dissipates.

For Tottenham fans, even though they are above Arsenal heading into the final 10 games of the season there is, understandably, an air of cautious optimism among them.

“I work with a lot of Arsenal fans and the banter definitely picks up from the Monday until game day, it is all the time,” Robb Ovel said. “You’re making bets and saying, ‘If we win, you have to do this,’ and stuff like that. It is intense but at the same time it’s good to have that kind of battle. It would just be nice to win some money back … because every year, I keep saying we will finish above them, and we never do. So I’ve got 20 years of money coming back. I hope.”


The build up: power and passion

“Is the power shifting? At the moment it could still go either way,” Mabbutt said. “But just looking at the way we are playing as a team. We’ve had the most shots on target of any team this season. That shows we are playing good attacking football. That shows our attacking flair going forward. On the other side of it, we’ve conceded fewer goals than anybody by some margin. That shows how solid we are. If you start putting those things together, and it is a team that is growing in stature together and a team that are wanting to win together, you are starting to put in some of the major points you have to have to be a successful side.”

A power shift is slowly happening in north London and with a hungry young squad and a talented young manager, Tottenham aim to catapult themselves ahead of Arsenal and become the No. 1 team in London.

That will take some doing  — considering Chelsea will also redevelop Stamford Bridge to 60,000 and have the riches of Roman Abramovich, plus West Ham’s move to the Olympic Stadium — but huge investment in the future of the club is on the horizon and one thing will mesh this all together: a new White Hart Lane.

Rising from the rumble which currently sits outside Spurs’ cozy yet cramped home will be a 61,000 capacity stadium fit for an exciting new era.

“They won’t fill it. They’ve got no chance,” Bruce laughs. “They are talking about having a stadium similar in size to ours. Their current ground, although they fill it very regularly at the moment, is actually quite a small ground. They’re going to have to up the interest in the club quite a lot, bearing in mind they don’t have the history of Arsenal or Manchester United who everyone knows. Spurs are not so well known. Where they will get fans is the tourist fans, who can’t really afford to go to Arsenal’s ground or other big clubs in the Premier League. It might be slightly cheaper and easier to get tickets for, so they might get a lot of people from abroad who will go there. I can’t see them filling it.”

With the plans for the Northumberland Development Project rubber-stamped by Mayor of London Boris Johnson last week, it’s all systems go for the state-of-the-art stadium which will become the jewel in Daniel Levy’s reign as Spurs chairman.

Coincidentally, and somewhat amusingly, it will be very similar to Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium.

The artist renderings look extremely similar to the Emirates but crucially it has squeezed in a few more seats to make sure Spurs will have more fans than Arsenal at every home game. Small victories. It will also be home to at least two NFL games per season from 2018, as the National Football League has already signed a 10-year agreement with Tottenham. Talk is rife of having London’s NFL franchise, if it ever gets one, based at the new White Hart Lane. Big things are happening in an area of north London that can be described as rundown and robust, yet resurgent.

The future is looking bright. Levy, despite his critics, must be applauded for that.

“Whenever things go wrong, it is always the chairman’s fault. If things go right there is never credit being given. But I think Daniel Levy has always had the best interests of the club at heart,” Mabbutt said. “Mistakes have been made. Everyone makes mistakes in life and along the way things haven’t gone swimmingly at times, but the way it has all been put together at the moment, Tottenham Hotspur is in the best position both on and off the field I can ever remember.”

Tottenham’s hopes of muscling in to become a perennial title challenger hinges on this stadium. The extra revenue it will generate will allow them not only to keep their best players – Gareth Bale, Luka Modric and others have been sold in the past – but buy top players and qualify for the Champions League. Spurs fans are wary that with Harry Kane and Dele Alli attracting the biggest clubs on the planet, the club may decide to cash in. If they win the title, that’s hugely unlikely to happen.

In the short term, plowing money into a new stadium was meant to hurt them.

Pochettino recently said that “tough times lie ahead” as budget cuts will mean less spending on the squad and more on the stadium project, which also includes a new school, shops, bars, hotels and housing. That is why having a young core group coming through at the same time is so encouraging for Tottenham. If they can keep Kane, Alli, Dier, Eriksen and Co. for the next five years, then they won’t need to spend big and then they’ll have a sparkling new stadium at the end of it.

Keeping Pochetino is key to all of this.

The Argentine coach is incredibly ambitious, and if one of Europe’s “super clubs” come calling, then Spurs could lose him. To see the value of managerial continuity, Spurs need only look at the impact Arsene Wenger continues to have on the club down the road. Spurs haven’t had that in over two decades, but with Wenger approaching his late 60s, a faint whiff of transition is seeping through the air in North London.

None more so than this week as only one thing is on the mind of fans of the two capital clubs. Often, the nerves and excitement gets to the players and can either provide a cagey affair or one that produces goals, red cards and box-office drama.

“Every family is divided. Workplaces are divided. Schools are divided. It’s a game that, no matter what you’ve done that season, if you beat your biggest rivals, your fans will forgive you,” Mabbutt chuckled. “It always had a special feel about it. It is a special game because it has the bragging rights in North London. The rivalry has been there for a long, long time and is something that will always be there. Some games have the same buildup and the same intensity but this particular game has an extra added edge.”

Ledley King, the Tottenham lifer, agreed and revealed what it’s like in the build up to the game.

“I expect [the atmosphere] to be electric. I played in many of these games and it’s not just the atmosphere on the day, it’s the buildup throughout the week. You pick up the papers and people are talking about this game. There are times when a player has made a comment which gets everyone up for the game a little bit more,” King laughs. “Then, driving into the stadium, there is just a different atmosphere around the game.

“I think that is why there have been some really high-scoring hugely entertaining games between the two teams, because of the atmosphere that is generated. Players just kind of go for it. Sometimes that can help and sometimes it doesn’t help because you can get caught up in the emotion. Whoever handles the emotion better on the day will probably get the result they are looking for.”

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Wenger out … then what?

The big reason Arsenal’s fans are looking over their shoulders more nervously than at any point since 1995 is that they know change is coming.

They know Arsene Wenger won’t last forever and in the next few years, the French manager will likely retire. Wenger, 66, has led Arsenal to 20 consecutive finishes above Spurs, has been in charge during their most successful spell as a club and will go down in history as one of the greatest managers in English club history.

But just like we have seen, and are still seeing, at Manchester United after Sir Alex Ferguson retired, transitioning away from these managerial behemoths isn’t easy. It’s highly likely Arsenal will suffer a blip in the short term and at the same time their stability and continuity takes a hit, the opposite could be said of their neighbors down the road.

It turns a recent trend on its head. The term “That’s so Spursy” has become a well-known vernacular of the English language in recent years. In short, it means to deliver so much hope but then fall flat at the vital moment. So many times, Spurs have crumbled when pushing for the top four but with Pochettino in charge, the same continuity which has served Arsenal so well for so long could be key to Spurs surging to dominance in their neck of the woods.

“The stability that Arsenal have had with Arsene Wenger over the last 20 years is important,” King explained. “I think Tottenham have not had that over that period of time. We’ve had a lot of different managers but we’ve always been searching for the right man we felt could take the club forward. I’d like to think we’ve got this young, hungry manager who will spend a long, long time here and develop the young players we have in the side at the moment. He is a manager who looks at the youth players and give them a chance if he thinks they’re good enough. He’s a great man for this club. Tottenham have always had players coming through the youth team which have been important for the first team and now we have a manger who is looking at things that way as well.”

Like Arsenal’s fans applauding Spurs with grimaces plastered across their faces, Mabbutt also cannot fail to reflect on Wenger’s remarkable achievements.

“Some of my best friends are Arsenal supporters and I have to say that they are far more worried about the game on Saturday than I am,” Mabbutt said, just to add some more banter. “I’ve spent some time with Arsene Wenger and I think he is the most incredible manager, obviously after Sir Alex Ferguson there is no one who can touch what he has achieved in the Premier League. He is a gentleman. The way he wants the game to be played, he should have been the Tottenham manager! Every time you talk to him about football he has this passion about the way the game has been played and making players use their abilities. Obviously I got on very well with Wenger.”

What do Arsenal’s fans really think about Wenger? Robb Ovel believes they are close to breaking point, not for the first time in the 20 years the Frenchman has been in charge.

“I sense they are quite deflated. The people I speak to they are bored of the excuses Arsene Wenger just throws out all the time. They have got to the point now where if they don’t win anything this year I think they want him to go. I think he will go when he wants to go.”

If Wenger goes, will that lead to a new era of dominance over Arsenal for Spurs?

“Why can’t that start now?” smiles Ovel as I leave the two brothers and Tottenham’s other fans outside Upton Park to discuss the team news filtering through and, no doubt, chatting about how great it would be if they could finally finish above Arsenal to get one over their friends.


Strong English core adds extra spice

Despite all of the bitterness, some friendliness, strangely, runs through the heart of this rivalry.

One of the cool things about this rivalry is that multiple players now in the first team have played against each other for many years coming through the ranks. They know each other from the England setup and they are from the area.

They get it.

Tottenham’s Harry Kane, Ryan Mason, Dele Alli and Eric Dier have all made their full England debuts in the past 12 months. Arsenal have England internationals in Theo Walcott, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Kieran Gibbs, Danny Welbeck and Jack Wilshere.

With both teams possessing so many players from in and around London, they understand this rivalry better than most.

“Playing in these games in the youth team, you feel the same way about them. You want to win because you know certain guys in that team. I grew up and I was playing against Ashley Cole, who came through the youth team,” King explained. “I’m sure the guys in the first team now would’ve been playing against some of these Arsenal players like Jack Wilshere and Kieran Gibbs in the youth teams. They are well aware of the importance and the bragging rights, I think that adds that extra spice. Especially going away with England, going away with these boys … you want to be on the winning side.”

For most of his career, King struggled against Arsenal. He made his debut for Spurs in 1999 but didn’t taste victory against their ancient rivals until 2010 when current Spurs left back Danny Rose scored a screamer to seal a 2-1 win.

“It took me a while to actually beat Arsenal,” King laughs. “They were such a strong side, especially for the first half of my career. [Thierry] Henry. [Dennis] Bergkamp. [Robert] Pires. [Patrick] Vieria. It was a difficult task and took a while to get a victory over them but the thing that really sticks out in my mind is when we did beat them and Danny Rose scored that incredible goal. Once we got that feeling of beating them, it was something that happened on a more regular basis. I remember beating them 5-1 in a cup competition. There is nothing better than getting one over your rivals.”

Another local lad, Harry Kane, has crossed the divide.

Kane was Spurs’ leading goalscorer last season with 31 and he leads the way this year with 19 in all competitions. He was also at Arsenal’s academy as a youngster before being released. A photo of him wearing an Arsenal shirt as a youngster went viral last year. Kane’s a north Londoner who knows better than most exactly what it means to the fans. Last season he scored a late header to hand a Tottenham 2-1 win over Arsenal at White Hart Lane. In his first-ever start in the NLD he was the hero. Nursing a broken nose ahead of this weekend’s clash, expect the man with the mask to be the main man for Tottenham.

The strong connection King talked about between players of both these clubs sometimes boils over.

Arsenal midfielder Jack Wilshere, 24, was handed a hefty fine for the FA after his antics during their FA Cup victory parade last season. A slightly (debatable) inebriated Wilshere grabbed the microphone outside the Emirates and asked the gathered Arsenal fans,“What do we think of Tottenham?” to which they replied, “Shit!” and then he asked “What do we think of shit?” to which the reply was “Tottenham!”

There’s no love lost in this rivalry and extra policing measures will be on hand on Saturday (question: why do you think the game is at 12:45 p.m. local time?) to ensure the passion of local rivals clashing doesn’t extend to fans inside and outside the stadium. In Arsenal’s 2-1 League Cup victory at Tottenham earlier this season some away fans caused damaged at the Lane, ripping off advertising boards and generally being a nuisance.

Everything is set up for an epic encounter.

But off the pitch, both sets of players often mix amicably. Mabbutt reveals many outsiders my find that strange, but it’s inevitable.

“Once the game is finished, what a lot of people find it difficult to understand and I explain it to them, in that particular game when we were playing the Arsenal, whatever we have to do to win that game you do it. You have to win that game. Those are your biggest rivals and each player on that other side is your biggest rival,” Mabbutt said. “As soon as the game is finished, on certain occasions, let’s say we played Arsenal on a Saturday afternoon. If it’s an international week then that Saturday night you then drive from the game to the hotel where the England team meet up and then I am meeting up with Ian Wright, David Seaman, Tony Adams, Lee Dixon, all the England players are meeting up. Then on the following Wednesday we are teammates playing in the same team together.

“A lot of the things we do in north London, a lot of the community programs, a lot of things we do with charities, Tottenham and Arsenal players are always at the functions. This week there is a big function, the London Football Awards, and there will be lots of past Arsenal and Tottenham players there. Even after our playing days we are all meeting up at events. In that particular game, it’s all about anything you can do to win that game. After that you can be teammates. Sometimes people think ‘crikey, you can actually be like friends with the Arsenal players?’ Yes, of course you can. And they are not only friends but teammates.”

As we’ve seen in rivalries across the Premier League, those between crosstown or extremely close rivals aren’t quite as ferocious due to families and neighbors being divided by the club they support.

Liverpool vs. Everton and Manchester United vs. Manchester City are good examples. Tottenham vs. Arsenal is similar but it has the potential to become one of the biggest, if not the biggest rivalry in the PL. And with both teams battling for the title and their young squads potentially being able to do so for the next two to three years, it could elevate itself towards the top of world soccer’s greatest rivalries.


The run-in: Spurs the favorites?

When you look specifically at the final 10 games of this season, it’s go-time for both clubs.

The final push kicks off with their meeting at the Lane and then it’s a nerve-wrangling sprint to the finish.

Sure, both teams have European campaigns to negotiate but with Arsenal’s Champions League bid hanging on by a thread against Barcelona and Spurs likely to prioritize a PL title push over Europa League glory, the full focus will be on bringing a glorious title parade to the streets of north London in May. Arsenal is also pushing for a third-straight FA Cup trophy but would much prefer a first PL title in 10 years.

If you look at the remaining games of both teams, on paper Spurs have it easier. This clash and away trips to Liverpool and resurgent Chelsea are their toughest encounters in the final 10 games. They should win the other seven.

However, predictably, the Arsenal fans I spoke to were skeptical of Spurs’ run-in.

“Historically Spurs have been near the fourth position but they’ve fallen away at the end of the season,” Bruce said. “This season they are higher up but after they lost to Crystal Palace at home in the FA Cup recently, you will find that most Arsenal fans felt that’s the beginning of their end of season collapse. That’s what we’re hoping. They are, however, one of the better Spurs teams I’ve seen for a while.”

Lea was also adamant that Tottenham’s title hopes were soon about to crumble, but even his hollering had a tinge of hopefulness to it.

“It always falls down at the last minute and I am convinced that we are strong enough and have the experience to do the business. I’m not too concerned but they are doing really well,” Lea admitted. “They have a good team and they are better than they have been for years. But I think we are better, it’s as simple as that.

“It’s never happened before [Spurs and Arsenal battling for the PL title] and whether there will be a St. Totteringham’s day this year, I’m not sure yet,” Lea says as other Arsenal fans who gathered around in a group reassure him. “There will be, there will be a St. Totteringham’s Day,” they say, gleefully.

“I’m convinced we are better than them,” Lea continues. “They are very good. Very good indeed… but I think we are better overall. The question is, can they last out for the entire season? They have days where they do really well and good luck to them, but there are other days where they aren’t so good. Over 38 games, we are better.”

The Gunners will certainly get ample opportunities to prove that during their tough run-in after the NLD.

For Arsenal, they face Manchester City away in the penultimate game of the season and face tricky trips to West Ham and Everton. Plenty of points to be dropped there but it further reinforces the importance of this game.

“Really, now, it’s going to be very tight,” Mabbutt said. “Every single point is going to be so precious. I think this game at the weekend, the Arsenal players and fans coming to White Hart Lane are the ones who are completely under pressure and are not looking forward to this game. Tottenham cannot wait for this game to arrive.”

Losing points to direct rivals at this point of the season would be critical to both teams’ title hopes.

In Arsenal’s case, losing points to your rising rivals who are threatening your dominance in north London would be a nightmare.

“[The power shift] has been a gradual thing,” King said. “I think slowly but surely Spurs have climbed onto the back of Arsenal’s heels but are still yet to finish above them in the Premier League and is obviously a big task. It is gradually coming. The team at the moment is a very young team, there’s a young manager and both are ambitious. Obviously the new stadium is in place, everyone is really looking forward to the future with this young squad. It would be a great time to finish above Arsenal, which could mean winning the Premier League. How amazing would that be?”

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

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

    “Wonderful,” he says.

    “Surreal,” he says.

    “Incredible,” he says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

    * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

    * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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    Johnson begins to turn red, “I mean …”

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

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

    Earnhardt doesn’t say a word.

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

    * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    And, inside the car, Johnson fell asleep

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

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

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

    * * *

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    There’s an irony about NASCAR: It is the ultimate thrill ride — 200 mph on sheet metal and horsepower and all that’s left of your tires — but you don’t get to NASCAR and you don’t win championships through daredevil feats. You get to NASCAR through great racing, yes, but also by building relationships, by impressing sponsors, by pitching the Lowe’s-Budweiser-M&M’s-FedEx-Napa Parts-Chevrolet-Toyota-Ford car and by working within a team. You win championships by driving like the devil when your car is loose and seems to be on a sheet of black ice, yes, but also by understanding what you don’t know and trusting your crew to handle things. You win championships by controlling your car, but also by relinquishing control. It’s the shakiest of balances.

    And balance is what Johnson does better than anyone in the sport.

    So when everyone asks Johnson how he feels after the seventh championship, well, he tries his best, he uses the balanced words that come closest, but really, in a private moment, he will tell you: He doesn’t really know HOW he feels. It’s all too much to take in.

    “All my life,” he says, “I just wanted to race cars. It was never about the numbers. I didn’t want to win seven championships. I didn’t really want to win one championship. I mean, yeah, I wanted to win, but what I really wanted was to drive a race car.”

    Before this race, he said the thing he wanted was to feel like he did when he was a kid, to strip away all the money and all the fame and all the past glory and just feel that thing he used to stay up all night dreaming about, that thing that pushed him to go down El Cajon Mountain just a little bit faster than felt right.

    Did he?

    “When people ask me how I feel,” he says, “I tell them best I can. I want people to share in this feeling i have. … But I don’t tell them everything.”

    * * *

    The second time Johnson met Dale Earnhardt, well, it’s a much shorter story. Johnson was hanging around with some buddies at Earnhardt’s garage when they all saw The Intimidator’s car roll slowly by with its windows pulled up. Suddenly the car stopped, and it backed up, and the window came down.

    “Hey,” Earnhardt said to Johnson. “You work for me?”

    “No sir.”

    “Then get the hell out of here. I don’t need no lawsuits.”

    And the window rolled back up and Dale Earnhardt drove away.

    At the end of that magical race at Homestead, there was one final restart, and after that Johnson heard “Clear” from his spotter, meaning the race and that seventh championship was his. Then came the disbelief and the crazy dancing and screaming and joy and hugs from his wife and children and the greatest compliment a driver could ever get.

    “Jimmie,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. would say to his friend as he pulled Johnson close, “Dad would think you’re such a badass.”

    The fourth wheel

    MIAMI — Carl Edwards has to know that he’s sort of the odd duck in this year’s Chase. Here, you have Kyle Busch, defending champion, force of nature, superstar. There, you have Jimmie Johnson, six-time champion, legend of the sport.  And third, completing the triangle, you have Joey Logano, 26 years old, phenom trying to insert himself into the story, everybody’s favorite young villain, the future of NASCAR.

    And here is Carl Edwards, 37 years old, a former dirt-track driver who ground out 28 victories in an excellent 13-year career but has never quite crashed through, never won a championship, never quite broken out of the pack of those excellent and professional drivers who make up the heart of NASCAR. People who know him probably know him as the guy who does a backflip when he wins. That’s fun. But it isn’t exactly what he wants.

    When you look at a list of the drivers who won the most races without winning a championship, you see this:

    1. Junior Johnson, 50 wins

    2. Mark Martin, 40 wins

    3. Fireball Roberts, 33 wins

    4. Denny Hamlin, 29 wins

    5. Carl Edwards, 28 wins

    Edwards knows this, knows it better than anyone. He knows there’s a difference in how people look at you when you’ve won a championship — knows there might even be a difference in how you look at yourself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    One for the history books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    And so, this race is for him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Promises, promises

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “What do you know?” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    The Magic Man

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    [nbcsports_mpx url=]

    “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?