Real Life or Fantasy?

SAN ANTONIO – The greatest fantasy football player of them all wakes up in the middle of the night. He has lost all feeling in his arms; he can’t move them. He lies on his bed, stares at the ceiling and patiently waits for feeling to come back.

Priest Holmes talks to himself while he waits. Talks to himself. “Come on arms,” he whispers to his arms. “I’m bigger than this injury,” he says to his mind. “I’m stronger than what’s happening to me,” he says to his body. When the feeling comes back, it comes slowly, a few centimeters of life prickling at a time, and once all feeling returns he gingerly gets out of bed. There is no more sleeping this night.

Understand: This is not one specific night. This is every night, every single night since the day he retired from the NFL five years ago. The doctors don’t know exactly what to do. This doesn’t seem to be one injury, one damaged nerve, but the product of a lifetime of runs and falls and crashes. When you ask Priest Holmes about a full night’s sleep, he shrugs like you are asking about vaudeville or childhood or something else that is gone and is not coming back. He never gets a full night’s sleep. He never expects to get one again.

* * *

Housewives wrote thank you notes to him. Office workers built desk shrines to him. People around America would spend more time in the fall thinking about Priest Holmes than they would about their families. They named their fantasy teams after him – “Holmes Wreckers” and “Judas Priests” and “The High Priest of Touchdowns” – and they moved their lineups around him and they spent their Sundays shrugging when opponents took a big lead because nothing mattered, nothing at all, until Priest Holmes stepped on the field and began his weekly fantasy football scoring spree.

“I met a couple of guys, they were out in Vegas, and they told me that they had won $250,000 in fantasy football because of me,” Holmes says. “I was like, ‘Really?’ I didn’t realize fantasy football was that big. But the height of my career, I think that was the time when fantasy football exploded. I’d hear from so many people, they didn’t even know me, they would just get me by happenstance and then win their leagues and they would thank me. … I didn’t get into it myself, but I guess it made me a household name.”

In 2001, after joining the Kansas City Chiefs, Priest Holmes led the NFL in rushing. Fantasy points galore. In 2002, before he got hurt, he was on his way to the greatest season an NFL running has ever had. More points. In 2003, he broke the NFL record for touchdowns. In 2004, he was on pace to break his own record before suffering an injury that more or less ended it all. It was just three and a half years.

He had three and a half glorious seasons as a fantasy football god. That’s all.

Priest Holmes says it was worth it.

* * *

The greatest fantasy football player of them all looks for cracks in the ground when he walks now. “Cracks,” he says. “Divots. Unlevel ground. A shift in the pavement. A crack in the hall.”

He looks for these things because the tiniest variation in elevation can throw his body now. If he hits one of those cracks just a little bit wrong, his ankle turns. His hip jolts. “I can blow out a knee,” he says. The body that once bounced off the ground after the most savage crash went dark now teeters with the slightest incline or dip.

“I watch football on television now,” Holmes says, “and it’s almost surreal. I’m watching guys leaping and jumping and spinning and busting tackles, and I think, ‘Was I really able to do all that stuff?’ I know that I did, but I don’t know how.”

He pauses. “It was just a mentality I developed over the years. I’m glad I bought into it.”

The good thing is that Holmes always could see the cracks.

* * *

Priest Holmes loves telling the Levon Kirkland story. This happened when he first started in the NFL. That took time. Nobody drafted him out of college. Why would anyone draft him? He had been a backup at Texas, where he spent his senior year mentoring a bigger, stronger, faster young man named Ricky Williams. He had blown out his ACL. He was 5-foot-9, a little more than 200 pounds, not much top-end speed. He was not a prospect. Of course nobody drafted him. All he had was his reputation as a force of nature.

Baltimore brought him to training camp, and he was … just … so … relentless. He never stopped. He latched on to the old warhorse, running back Earnest Byner, who was in his mid 30s and had seen it all. Byner worked as hard as any of the kids. Holmes saw a guru.

“I was mesmerized by him,” Holmes says. He studied the way Byner practiced, studied the way Byner watched film, studied the way Byner carried himself on and off the field. There was a football player. But he was more. “There’s a difference between a professional football player and a professional football player who leaves behind a legacy,” Byner told Holmes. Yes. He wanted to leave a legacy.

He made the team as a special teams player that first year and continued to play so hard, with so much heart, that one day that team’s coach Ted Marchibroda came up to him and said: “Priest, you’re our starting running back against Cincinnati.”

Holmes ran for 173 yards and scored two touchdowns in his first game as an NFL starter. For the season, he ran for 1,000 yards. “I didn’t know anything yet,” Holmes would say. “I did that on pure enthusiasm.”

That was the year of the Levon Kirkland story. Remember Kirkland? He was a freakishly big linebacker for Pittsburgh – the Steelers listed him at 270, but the guy was 300 pounds on dieting days. He moved like a Land Rover.

Holmes ran a short square-out pattern – go five yards, turn to the quarterback, show your hands for the pass. Eric Zeier was the Ravens quarterback that day, and it was cold and windy. Zeier’s throw fluttered a high.

“I saw that ball moving up in and down in the wind,” Holmes says, “and I thought: ‘I don’t want this one.’ But you know me. I went up and got it. And I turned and … all I saw was a 99. You know how the Steelers wear their numbers on their helmets? All I saw was Levon’s 99 on that helmet.

“The sun was behind him. And that black helmet came in, like it was a lunar eclipse, you know? Then it blocked the sun. And everything went dark.”

Priest Holmes smiles. Everything went dark.

“He decleated me,” Holmes says. “That was the hardest I ever got hit in my whole life. And I don’t even know how I did it, but I bounced up off the ground, and I ran back to the huddle. I went right up to Zeier and said, ‘Don’t you EVER do that to me again. If you ever throw a ball like that to me again, it’s going the other way for six because I’m not catching it.”

Now, Priest Holmes is laughing hard.

“Man, Levon loves that story. Every time I see him, he says: ‘Go on Priest. Tell that story about the time I hit you.'”

* * *

The greatest fantasy football player of them all is trimmer now. Every day, he goes out with his old trainer Bay Bay McClintock, and they do some of the old training routine. No, they’re not quite climbing the stadium stairs yet, and they’re certainly not running the hills the way they did when Holmes was an athletic rock. In those days, Priest Holmes would do stuff that Bay Bay couldn’t believe – and he’d trained professional athletes most of his life. One time, he saw Holmes run the stadium stairs and, at the end, jump over the brick wall onto the concourse without stopping.

Anyway, they’re not doing those kinds of routines. But they’re doing some real training.

“Comeback!” Bay Bay yells sometimes.

“You are out of your mind,” Priest Holmes yells back.

At one point, not so long ago, Holmes was pushing 250. This happens to elite football players sometimes – they retire and stop working out but they keep eating and living like they’re football players. Priest Holmes went into real estate, he opened up a lounge in San Antonio, he did some broadcasting, he worked on numerous charities. He could not accept that his body was changing; he could not stop seeing himself as that brick of a man who lit up fantasy football scoreboards. He could not accept it; until he did. And then he started working out because he felt like he was losing himself.

“It comes down to the question: ‘What am I?'” he says. “I’m not a 255-pound guy. I came close to it, but that’s not who I am. … It’s hard sometimes to remember who you are.”

* * *

Brian Billick had just taken the job as Baltimore Ravens coach, and he called Priest Holmes aside and told him, straight out: “You are not my kind of running back.”

This was just after Holmes’ 1,000-yard season, just after he had scaled those crazy odds and gone from NFL free agent to NFL star. “He told me, ‘People around this team respect you, I’m not even sure why,'” Holmes says. “And then he said that he wanted a big back, an intimidating back, he wanted his own Jerome Bettis, his own Eddie George, his own Corey Dillon. I didn’t blame him really. I just told him, ‘Well, I don’t think I can get any bigger.”

Billick and the Ravens brought in Errict Rhett, a former star running back with Tampa Bay. They drafted a big 240-pound bruiser of a back out of Tennessee named Jamal Lewis. They could not have made things more clear. But Holmes kept finding ways to make himself valuable. He became a third-down back who caught passes. He became a mentor for Lewis, even though he knew that he was teaching the man who had taken his job. He became a leader. Before the 2000 season, the year Baltimore won the Super Bowl, four players spoke to the team. Three were defensive players, led by Ray Lewis. The fourth was Priest Holmes.

That seemed to be Holmes’ destiny – an inspirational player who filled some gaps and led by example. That, in fact, was what the Kansas City Chiefs believed they were getting in 2001 when they signed Holmes. Chiefs coach Dick Vermeil badly needed a running back – the Chiefs had not had even a 900-yard rusher in nine years. Vermeil’s former quarterback Tony Banks told him that Holmes was the right kind of player for the team. “I think Priest Holmes will be a terrific player for us,” Vermeil said.

[parallax src=”” height=600 credit=”Priest Holmes and Chiefs coach Dick Vermeil in 2007. (AP)”]

But, no matter how they would spin it later, Vermeil and the Chiefs did not think Holmes was a guy who could carry the ball 25 or 30 times a game. In his first two games, Holmes carried the ball just 15 times total – the bulk of the carries went to bigger and stronger fullback Tony Richardson. Holmes would admit being a bit frustrated (“Why did they bring me here if they aren’t going to give me the ball?”) but after those games, Richardson and Holmes had a talk.

Holmes: “He told me, ‘Priest, this just isn’t right. You should be the one carrying the ball. And I promise I’ll be there for you every step of the way.’ It all changed after that.”

“It was clear to me,” Richardson would say, “and I’m sure it was becoming clear to the coaches that Priest needed to get the football.”

In Week 3 against Washington, Holmes ran for 147 yards, caught five passes for 78 more, scored three touchdowns – a fantasy football cavalcade – and the greatest fantasy football run ever began.

“Surprised?” he asks. “Nah. I wasn’t really surprised. I always believed that I could do special things on a football field. The numbers and the touchdowns and all that stuff, I figured that would come if I got the chance.”

* * *

The greatest fantasy football player of them all had to buy health insurance this year for the first time. That’s the way it goes for retired players – for five years Holmes was covered by the NFL insurance policy. When five years expired, he got a letter in the mail: “You are no longer covered by the NFL’s Cobra policy.”

Getting health insurance was just one more step into that realm Holmes has come to call: Real life. When you play in the NFL, there is only football. Everything else is handled. “If you need a room, you call somebody,” Holmes says. “If you need a rental car, you call somebody. What you eat, where you eat, where you go, what you do – call this person. They’ll take care of it. If I needed socks I would call our equipment manager. The league gives you this kind of fishbowl living, where you are concentrating on football only.

“Yes, there are players who become distracted with that kind of living, who do things they shouldn’t do. But, if you use it, the NFL environment allows you to think about nothing but football. That’s all I thought about for all those years.”

When the letter came, Holmes quickly found an insurance policy that sounded good, one that he thought would cover his needs. He got the bill: $2,500. He thought, “Well, that’s pretty expensive, but it seems like good insurance.” The next month, though, he got the next bill for $2,500.

“Wait a minute,” he thought. “I have to pay that much EVERY MONTH?”

He quickly canceled the policy and shopped around for health insurance that wouldn’t cost him $30,000 a year.

* * *

Back when Priest Holmes was playing, fantasy football was generally pretty simple. Running backs were the most valuable players, even more than quarterbacks, because they could score points in a variety of ways: With rushing yards, with receptions, with receiving yards and, of course, with touchdowns. This is still somewhat true though fantasy football rules are much more diverse and distinct now. Back then, in the early 2000s, most people played by the same rules and running backs were kings of the world.

Priest Holmes was the fantasy football king of kings.

In 2001, you suspect, Holmes wasn’t even drafted in many fantasy leagues. For those lucky enough to pick him up after the Washington breakthrough game, their fantasy football teams were transformed. Holmes ran for a league-leading 1,555 yards – essentially in 14 games – he caught 62 passes, he scored 10 touchdowns. He was the second-highest scoring fantasy player that year behind another fantasy football icon, Marshall Faulk. Holmes was only just starting.

Holmes’ 2002 season is one of the NFL’s greatest what-if questions. It began when he scored four touchdowns against Cleveland. Two weeks later, he ran for 180 yards and scored three touchdowns against New England. He scored at least one touchdown 10 games in a row, and in the team’s 14th game, against Denver, he was having one of the best days of that whole amazing season. Late in the third quarter, he broke off a 56-yard run and was pulled down from behind just as he was approaching the end zone.

At that moment, with two games and a quarter remaining, Holmes had 1,615 yards rushing, 70 receptions, almost 700 receiving yards and 24 touchdowns. He was just about on pace for 2,000 yards rushing, and clearly on pace for records in yards from scrimmage and touchdowns. Nobody had ever had a statistical season quite like it. In Kansas City, he was this wonderful player who kept a flawed team in games, but around the country he was something more: He was fantasy football god. He was for fantasy football what Bo Jackson had been in the classic video game “Tecmo Bowl.”

“I remember playing with Tecmo Bowl with Bo,” Holmes would say. “That’s all I wanted to do. Defenders would grab him and he would just shake them off and go, he was unstoppable.”

“Did you feel that way in 2002?”

“Well, I couldn’t just shake people off like that. And I couldn’t break those long Bo Jackson runs. But it was similar in that I didn’t think anybody could stop us.”

That tackle in Denver ended the magical season. It would be an illegal play today – Denver’s Tyrone Poole horse collared Holmes from behind. Holmes foot got stuck and fell awkwardly to the ground. At first the doctors couldn’t quite pinpoint what was wrong with Holmes; he would not have the necessary hip surgery for months. Either way, the season ended and a half dozen records were not broken.

“I still think about it,” Holmes said. “To this day, I remember how I got horse-collared and how my foot got stuck. I think, ‘Why did I do that? Why didn’t I just fall differently? Why didn’t he let go when I was going down? Why did my foot have to get stuck?’ I still think about it.”

He had hip surgery and was on crutches for four weeks in April and May the following season. There were doubts he’d be ready for the season. What few knew was that he was training with a vengeance, a hunger even he had never quite shown before. “He came back,” Bay Bay says, “and it wasn’t like anyone else I ever trained. He was on a mission. Of all the people I’ve trained, Priest is the one I couldn’t break. I’d work him and work him, and he wouldn’t show me his pain.”

“That was just me,” Priest says. “I didn’t show anybody my pain.”

* * *

The greatest fantasy football player of them all admits having mood swings. He doesn’t think of them as mood swings exactly; he always did have a reputation for being temperamental. After some of his best games, he would sometimes, for no apparent reason, just refuse to talk to reporters. After some of his worst, he would talk and talk until reporters had to just walk away. His teammates would talk about how they admired him but didn’t quite get him. He seemed to change his cell phone number every other day.

It’s different now, he says. There are times when black clouds hover. The migraines come. The pain comes. The tingling sensation of lost feeling comes. They also go. That’s the important part. They always go.

[parallax src=”” height=600 credit=”Priest Holmes in October 2001. (Getty Images)”]

He was involved in a Chiefs fantasy camp once, not too long ago. A bunch of businessmen paid some money so they could act like football players for a day. Holmes and a few other players put them through some drills. Just drills – nothing with contact. He watched for two hours as hamstrings snapped like tennis racket strings and muscles pulled like taffy and ankles turned over and shoulders popped out of sockets. He watched these men hobbled and limped around the field in agony.

Just drills.

“This was just the stuff we would do to warm up before practice,” he says.

When the black clouds come, Holmes says he doesn’t get angry. He goes deeper inside himself. Deeper and deeper. When he played, he would often call himself a warrior. He only meant it metaphorically – his father, Herman Morris, was a master sergeant in the army and shipped off to Iraq when he was 50, and so Priest always knew and respected that football and war are really nothing alike. But being a football warrior was a mindset, one he needed to get through the injuries and the doubts and, later in his career, the black clouds that would build overhead. The warrior never stops. The warrior never lets down. The warrior sacrifices all for the war.

“Are you a warrior now?” I ask him.

“No,” he says. “The war’s over.”

* * *

Three steps. That’s the Lynyrd Skynyrd song. That’s what football means to Priest Holmes. Three steps. Every single thing he ever accomplished, every comeback he ever made, every game-breaking play he made, every one of the 27 touchdowns he scored in his record-breaking 2003 season, he chalks up all of it to the precision of the first three steps he would take when the ball was snapped.

Funny thing is that’s what he misses most. Three steps. He hears some of his old friends talk about the friendships, and he misses those. They miss the cheers, the action, the competition, and he misses those too. He misses the touchdowns – Holmes loved scoring touchdowns. He used to do this little move when he crossed the end zone, a move where he would hold both arms out like he was soaring into the wind. Home crowds would go bonkers, road crowds would go silent, the moment crackled with energy, yes, he misses scoring those touchdowns.

But more, he misses those three steps, the purity of three steps, the daily pursuit of something perfect and just a little bit out of reach. He believed: If a running back stayed true to his first three steps, did them exactly right, the play would work. It had to work. Defenders were powerless if he made step one, step two, step three in flawless synchronicity with his offensive line.

But there were countless distractions and diversions and barriers to prevent him from getting the three steps right. He had to trust his linemen unconditionally. He had to believe the hole that was not in front of him would materialize. He had to stay true to the steps even when an unexpected flash of color crossed his vision or when the play before had blown up unexpectedly or when something in front of him looked just a little bit out of order.

Three steps. He would go to bed thinking about them. He would wake up thinking about them. He would spend all offseason watching every one of his plays at least three times, and he always watched his first three steps.

“All we were trying to do was perfect five or six plays,” Holmes says. “I miss that singularity of purpose, you know? That was just such an awesome feeling. The play would be written on the chalkboard. And the question was: “OK, can you do it JUST LIKE THAT? Because if you do, you’re going to get points. If you do, you’re going to win the game and, on top of that, maybe you’ll lead the league in rushing or set the touchdown record.’

“Can you do it? That’s all it was. And I loved that feeling, all of us working together, me working on my three steps, Willie Roaf working on mauling his guy, Will Shields working on leveraging his guy, Tony Gonzalez working on turning his defender – just give me one yard, Tony! — all of us working to do it just like it was on the chalkboard.”

In 2003, those three steps carried him to the NFL touchdown record. He wasn’t the physical force he had been in 2002. Each week took a terrible toll on him. He would remember Friday nights when he still wasn’t sure if he could play. That’s because: The feeling happened every Friday night. “Something would happen between Friday night and Saturday night,” he says. “I guess it was the mental training of it, I’d just done it so many times that my body would come together.

“But I would know that the minute that game ended on Sunday, I wasn’t going to be healthy Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday. It would be back to Friday, and me saying: ‘Come on body, I need you one more time.'”

So in 2003, he wasn’t the unrelenting physical force he had been, his yards per carry went down a bit, his brilliance lost a little bit of its edge, but he had honed those first three steps — it didn’t hurt that the Chiefs had a phenomenal offensive line with Hall of Famer Willie Roaf and soon-to-be Hall of Famers Will Shields and Tony Gonzalez — and he still had a season for the ages. He scored those record-breaking touchdowns (the record would be broken again by Shaun Alexander). Four times that year he rushed for three touchdowns in a game, and he scored two touchdowns in six other games.

The Chiefs won their first nine games that year and led the league in scoring and seemed like a real Super Bowl contender – but they lost to Peyton Manning’s Indianapolis team in a playoff game where neither team punted. Holmes ran for 176 yards, caught five passes, scored two touchdowns, and it wasn’t enough to beat Manning. From a fantasy football perspective, those two seasons were like outliers, like one of those Wayne Gretzky seasons when he would have more assists than anyone else in the NHL would have points.

If anything, Holmes was even better to start 2004. He ran for 151 yards and three touchdowns against Denver to start the year. He scored four touchdowns against Atlanta, went for over 200 yards from scrimmage in a revenge game against Indianapolis. He was leading the NFL in rushing and on pace to break his own touchdown record when in the eighth game of the season, he was running a stretch play and a defender came on him at the perfect angle. Holmes looked to his fullback Tony Richardson to get the block, but for one of the few times in their remarkable friendship Richardson missed the block. The defender hit Holmes right on the knee, and his season was over.

“I gave Tony a lot of hell about that,” Holmes says. “I said, ‘Man, that’s where you have to take one for the team.’ We laughed about it. But he really did feel bad.”

When Holmes went to the sidelines after that play, he didn’t know that his end had been written. He would spend the next three years fighting the end, but it was really over. And then there was what happens after the end.

* * *

The greatest fantasy football player of them all doesn’t regret one bit of it. He doesn’t regret the vicious hits that made his sky turn different colors. He doesn’t regret the tackles that made him lose feeling in his arms and legs. He doesn’t regret the time he got tackled so hard that he found himself sitting on the bench and he suddenly reached for his helmet and shouted to Richardson, “Come on man, let’s go, we have to get back in there.”

And Richardson said: “Sit down man, the game’s almost over. You’ve been sitting here for an hour.” Holmes did not remember one minute of it.

He doesn’t regret the final comeback, the return to the game after his body all but pleaded with him to stop. The headaches had already begun. He would lose feeling in his limbs after even moderate hits. He could not stop. He played in four games when he was 34, and the final run was for no gain and the final hit left his whole body quivering.

No, he doesn’t regret any of it because Priest Holmes was a football player. That was the one thing he wanted to be. He was well paid, and he heard the cheers, and he won a Super Bowl, and he got into people’s lives. Those were nice benefits. But more, he got to play football. This was his dream ever since the moment he first carried a football all those years ago in San Antonio. He wants the game to be safer. He is outspoken now about concussions (he does not even venture how many he suffered) and he is for the rules the NFL adds for safety. But regret? No. He made his choice. He was, like Earnest Byner, a football player who wanted to leave a legacy.

“Was it worth it?” he asks. “For me it was worth it. Football gave an opportunity to be my true self.”

He doesn’t lack for things to do now. Holmes says that he’s made some good money in real estate, his foundation offers scholarships and hope to young people in San Antonio and Kansas City, he dabbles in some football coaching and broadcasting; he plans to do some more of that. His lounge, PHX Lounge, has its financial ups and downs but he says it’s going well now and, anyway, it keeps him busy. He offers to mentor players who are just leaving the NFL – help them adapt to Real Life.

And, in the few quiet moments, he thinks a lot about touchdowns and three steps and the biggest hits he ever walked away from. Even in bed, with no feeling in his arms or legs, he thinks about football. Priest Holmes says it was one hell of a career.

* * *

We finish up the interview and Priest says to me: “Let’s play a game of chess.” We used to play chess every week in Kansas City – it was a way for him to relax and for me to get insight into the greatest fantasy football player there ever was – and so he pulled out a chess board and set up the pieces and we played. He sat for a long time over every move, like he always did. When the match is over, and he has won again, we get ready to go to dinner and he says, “Give me a second.”

He explains that he had lost feeling in his legs and it was only just coming back.

“Yeah, I lost it there in the middle of the game,” he says.

“Why didn’t you say something?” I ask.

“There’s nothing to say,” he says. “I knew the feeling would come back. By God’s grace, the feeling always comes back.”

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    Once more, with feeling

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

    How does it FEEL, Jimmie?

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

    How does it FEEL, Jimmie?

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

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

    “Wonderful,” he says.

    “Surreal,” he says.

    “Incredible,” he says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

    * * *

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

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

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

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

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

    * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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    Johnson begins to turn red, “I mean …”

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

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

    Earnhardt doesn’t say a word.

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

    * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    And, inside the car, Johnson fell asleep

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

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

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

    * * *

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

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

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

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

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

    Did he?

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

    * * *

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

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

    “No sir.”

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

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

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

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

    The fourth wheel

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

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

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

    1. Junior Johnson, 50 wins

    2. Mark Martin, 40 wins

    3. Fireball Roberts, 33 wins

    4. Denny Hamlin, 29 wins

    5. Carl Edwards, 28 wins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    One for the history books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    And so, this race is for him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Promises, promises

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “What do you know?” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    The Magic Man

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    No more fun and games

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

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

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

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

    But something has obviously changed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    The remarkable rise of Andy Murray

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Tiger Woods won 14 of them, as mentioned.

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

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

    So, yes, Tiger Woods was disheartening.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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