This is 40

Junior at 40 stares hard at the carpet and talks about how comfortable he feels with himself. That’s the theme these days, the thing everybody wants to talk about with him now that he is 40 — how comfortable he is being Dale Earnhardt Jr.

He does feel comfortable, you know, except, well, it’s hard to explain. Junior has told his own story so many times that, in a way, it doesn’t even feel like his own story.

He’s not saying the media gets him wrong. They get him right, mostly. He recognizes himself in the features and columns and video montages and live interviews. He sees the lost kid who didn’t like being the namesake of the fiercest and most famous stock car driver in the world. He sees the heartbroken son who saw Dale Earnhardt die in his rearview mirror. He sees the agitated young man who partied like mad and never stopped feeling anxious. He sees the older man, at peace, the protagonist of today’s stories.

Yes, he seems himself in the coverage. The media, the public, they’re not so far off.

At the same time, they’re a million miles off too. You know?

“Everything you see in the media feels very extreme,” he says, and he pauses and keeps looking at the ground. “It just feels very extreme as opposed to what you think it is, what it feels like in real life.

“When it’s in the media … it’s just … it’s just out there … you know? … It’s out there …  and everybody’s reading it … and it becomes this big thing. Like they get some of the details right … but there’s something different … it’s not so grand …”

Junior shrugs and still does not look up. There’s no explaining all this. Now the stories focus on how comfortable he is, how much Amy and Steve and others have changed his life, how he’s winning again on the track and enjoying life more off the track. So be it. The stories are right. And they’re also not right. You know?

“I don’t have it perfect,” he says. “I haven’t perfected things. I don’t have everything in my life exactly right. I don’t do everything right every day.”

And now he does look up.

“I have a hard time,” he says, “sitting there and not worrying about what other people are thinking.”

Ages 3 to 16

When Dale Earnhardt Jr. was 7 years old, he saw his father climb a ladder so he could cut off some tree limbs. His father ended up gashing his hand with a chainsaw; it was so badly slashed that you could see all the way to the bone. What did he do? Well, Dale Earnhardt figured since he was up there already, he might as well finish cutting the tree limbs. He could wash off the blood later.

That was Dale Earnhardt, the Man in Black, the Intimidator. He was the son of a driver, too, the son of Ralph Earnhardt, who was the ultimate thinking man’s driver. Dale Earnhardt drove more from the gut. He gave the other drivers one chance, and only one chance, to get the hell out of the way. He won seven Sprint Cup championships through guts and will and menace. Ned Yost – now the Kansas City Royals’ manager – tells the Kansas City Star the story of sitting once with Dale Earnhardt and noticing that other drivers never came by.

“No, I don’t have a friend out here,” Earnhardt said.

“Why not?” Yost asked.

“Because I don’t want anyone looking in the rear view mirror and seeing the black No. 3 come behind them and think I’m their friend,” Earnhardt said.

That was the force of nature Junior loved from afar. Dale Earnhardt was no more interested in fatherhood than he was in other drivers’ friendship. He left the family when Junior was three. Junior went to live with Dale and his new wife, Teresa, only after his mother’s house burned to the ground. “He wasn’t around much,” is Junior’s stock line. His sister, Kelley, was only two years older than him, but she raised Junior more than anybody.

Junior knew his father the way most people did … through the television. During races, he would spread out his Matchbox cars and reenact what he saw on television, with the No. 3 car always winning. Junior always did like playing alone. The kids at school bullied him, as much for his name as for his size. He rebelled the ways he knew how. Junior was kicked out of a Christian school for fighting and was sent to a military academy. He spent more time thinking about video games than cars.

And then, when he was 16 years old, he spent $200 and bought a 1978 Monte Carlo. And he and his brother Kerry went to work on it. Junior wasn’t very much like his father, something his father pointed out regularly. Junior wasn’t tough. Junior wasn’t ambitious. Junior didn’t fish or hunt, he liked alternative music more than country. Dale Earnhardt felt quite sure that his namesake could never be a race-car driver. But he missed something.

[parallax src=”” height=1000 credit=”Father and son in 2001 (Getty Images)”]

There’s a quote from the poet Robert Frost that goes like this:

“You don’t have to deserve your mother’s love. You have to deserve your father’s. He’s more particular.”

There’s a quote from Dale Earnhardt Jr. that goes like this: “I think I just wanted to be somebody Dad wanted to spend a lot of time with, you know?”


Junior at 40 talks about the pressure he feels this year to win a championship. His chances are running out now – he will almost certainly need to win at Talladega this week just to advance into the next round. And Talladega, every NASCAR fan knows, is the most unpredictable track in the circuit. “You have no control there,” Junior’s crew chief Steve Letarte says. “It’s the one track where luck is as important as anything.”

“The good Lord’s got a plan,” Junior says. “We’ll go down there, and if we’re supposed to win it, we’ll win it.”

It already has been a magical year. Any year you win the Daytona 500 is magical, but in addition to that, Junior also won twice at Pocono, meaning he has won more races in 2014 than in the previous seven seasons combined. No matter what happens, Junior feels like he has given friend Steve Letarte a wonderful sendoff – Letarte is joining NBC as an analyst next year.

But … those fans. Junior Nation, they call themselves. There aren’t other fans quite like them in racing, maybe in all of American sports. One recent NASCAR survey says that 30 percent of all NASCAR fans are Junior fans. And they adore Dale Jr., defend him, believe in him and think of him as their own son.

Junior Nation has a diverse demographic — they are fans of Dale Earnhardt Sr., certainly, and they are Southern racing fans who feel like the sport has lost some of its roots (Junior is the only North Carolina native in the NASCAR Chase), and they are young people who associate with Junior’s conspicuous sincerity. They cheer for him, and they cry for him, and they protect him.

“I think people just appreciate that he’ll say what he thinks,” NASCAR President Mike Helton says.

How big is Junior Nation? When Tony Stewart made his first NASCAR appearance after the tragic sprint car accident that resulted in the death of driver Kevin Ward Jr., fans unleashed enormous cheers of support. “At first,” said Stewart, one of the most popular race car drivers in the world, “I thought I accidentally walked out in Dale Jr.’s spot.”

How big is Junior Nation? Steve Letarte vividly remembers the first time he and Junior got together after Letarte became crew chief. They were in Las Vegas for Junior to pick up yet another Most Popular Driver award. Letarte had been the crew chief for Jeff Gordon, who is probably the second-most-popular driver. He thought he understood popularity. But then Letarte watched Junior walk along a 40-foot hallway.

“When Dale walked from Point A to Point B, the mass chaos that he created in that 40-foot spectacle, I learned that he is not like anybody I’ve ever been around. … I saw that and I thought, ‘I don’t want to be him. I don’t even know how he does it.’”

Junior’s overwhelming popularity is something that only a few American athletes – LeBron James, Peyton Manning, Derek Jeter, Tiger Woods – can understand. But there’s a simple thing that separates Junior, something he does not hide from. The others have won championships.

Junior says, “Our fans really believe in their hearts that this is the year. They’ve been waiting on this year. They think it’s fate. I would want nothing more than to win the championship, so those people could celebrate it.

“We’ve put those fans through hell. When we weren’t running well, they’d have to go to work and listen to people who weren’t fans laugh about how we ran, how bad we were. Seemed like we never lost one supporter, though, no matter how bad we raced. It’s miraculous.”

He looks back down at the carpet.

“But I don’t want to think too much about that,” he says. “That puts on more pressure. I definitely don’t want to do anything to manufacture more pressure. There’s plenty already there.”


Ages 17 to 25

Was Junior surprised that he had a talent for racing cars? Yeah, maybe a little. He’d heard his father mutter enough about him. Kelley was the driver with the real talent. She had their Dad’s edge. She had his ability to think about a hundred different things at one time, the ability to will the other drivers into getting out of her way. Junior didn’t have that. He still doesn’t.

But, Junior did have his skills. He had a good sense of what was happening around him. He had superb hand-eye coordination, perhaps from all of those video games. And there was something else — remember the scene in the Godfather when Michael found himself in front of the hospital ready to fight off an attack on his father. Michael was lighting a cigarette for someone and he found, much to his own shock, that his hands were perfectly calm, not even the slightest shake. He was born for this mafia business. That was the thing Junior had too. He felt an almost surreal calm in a race car. Everywhere else in Junior’s life he felt nervous, antsy, uncomfortable … but he felt so at ease in a car.

Dale Earnhardt did begin to notice his son. He did not say a lot at first – he always wanted Junior to make his own name – but now and again he offered some fatherly advice. When Junior told the Man in Black about this guy in Myrtle Beach who kept wrecking him, Dad nodded, thought it through, and told his son, “When he starts to cut across, put on your brakes and keep your steering wheel straight.” Next race, Junior closed his eyes and did just that. He successfully spun out his first victim. He felt the way other sons must feel when they catch their first fish with their Dad.

Junior won two Busch Series championships for his father. “That Junior, he’s been the big surprise to me,” Dale Earnhardt told reporters. “I didn’t think he had racin’ in him.” In 1999, at an International Race of Champions race in Michigan, Junior found himself on his father’s bumper as the race closed. On the final lap, as the father said, “Junior decided he wanted to race.” Junior went for the pass, The Intimidator went for the block, the two cars bumped two or three times, and The Intimidator won by inches. The men hugged happily afterward. Junior was in heaven.

[insert-quote text=”During races, he would spread out of his Matchbox cars and reenact what he saw on television, with the No. 3 car always winning” align=center]

The next year, Junior made it to the show, to what was then called the NASCAR Winston Cup, and he won his 12th race, a record for quickest victory. Everyone pointed out that it had taken Dale Earnhardt sixteen races to win his first one.

“Good job, I love you, enjoy this moment,” Dale Sr. said to him when that race ended. It was just about the warmest thing the Man in Black had ever said to his son.

Four weeks later, Junior won again in Richmond. “Good job, I love you, find your own way home,” Dale Sr. said to him, and he took off in his helicopter, preferring not to wait through his son’s celebration.

Junior was a phenomenon. And he was getting exactly what he wanted out of racing.

“I just wanted to be something he could be proud of,” Junior says, and then he corrects himself. “Well, all I really wanted was to talk to him, to talk about adult things with him, the things he talked about with his buddies.”


Junior at 40 likes thinking about those days when he hung out with his father and drove all out. He sees some of the young drivers today – phenoms like Kyle Larson – and it reminds him of what that kind of driving felt like. He was just … so … fast. He felt invincible.

You know Steve Letarte’s description of driving in NASCAR? It goes something like this: Imagine you’re driving, you’re in control, and then all of a sudden you hit a sheet of black ice. You are on the sheet of black ice for a few seconds and then your car gets to the end and is back on solid road, and you’re in control again.

Those few seconds on black ice, the few seconds of undiluted panic that you did not even know existed, those few seconds are what drivers feel for 500 miles, give or take a caution flag or two. Junior at 24 and 25 years old craved that feeling. He wanted to explore it.

“When you’re young, there’s this raw speed you possess,” Junior says now. “I think it’s not knowing. … Sometimes, there will be this kid with a lot of speed and you will hear people say, ‘Yeah, well, he hasn’t hit anything hard yet.’”

When you ask Junior why you lose that feeling when you get older, he smiles a little.

“Well,” he says, “back then you just don’t know any better.”


Age 26-36

When Dale Earnhardt died, Dale Earnhardt Jr. found himself king of a sport he did not yet understand. He knew how to drive a car fast – that was just inside him. But the rest of it was baffling and touching and troubling and heart-pounding. People just loved him completely, absolutely, utterly, and he just did not know what to do with all that love. Was it all just for his father? Did he deserve any of it?

Junior won the first NASCAR race after 9/11 the year Dale Earnhardt died, and he held an American flag out the window as he rode his victory lap, and that seemed to double his fan base. He got into a fight with someone on Tony Stewart’s pit crew because the guy called him “Daddy’s boy.” That seemed to double his fan base. He talked about sex and drugs and rock and roll with Playboy, something his father obviously never would have done, and even THAT seemed to double his fan base.

He couldn’t lose them. Junior at 40 would look back on those years and see a driver who was a goof-off, someone who would show up five minutes before practice starts, unleash his extraordinary talent for driving a car, and then duck back into the trailer to play video games and to party.

“If I had that driver driving for me in the Nationwide Series,” Junior at 40 says, “I’d call him into the office, call him on the carpet, say, “What are you doing out there? … What in the hell are you thinking?”

Well, Junior in those days was trying hard not to think. It was all too much. He was too famous, too gifted, too sensitive. The year he turned 30, in 2004, he couldn’t lose. He won the Great American Race at Daytona (doubling his fan base once again). Then he won in Atlanta and Richmond and Bristol. All sorts of conflicting emotions were welling in him, so many he couldn’t keep them together. After he won at Talladega – his fifth victory at the track in his career — he took the points lead and someone asked him how he felt.

“It don’t mean s— right now,” he said. “Daddy’s won here ten times.”

The swearing cost him twenty-five points and the NASCAR championship lead. He never quite got it back. The car broke a rear-end gear in Martinsville. He got into an accident in Atlanta that, as he said, “I never should have been in.” After winning his sixth race of the year at Phoenix, he gave himself an outside chance to win the championship with a great performance at Homestead. Instead, he finished a distant 23rd.

“It was all so sporadic,” Junior would say. “I was never consistent. I’d have four great weeks and four bad weeks. I’d win one week and finish 33rd the next.”

After that year, the good weeks happened less and less. He won just once in 2005, once more in ‘06, and he didn’t win at all in ‘07. Then he left Dale Earnhardt Inc. and went to rich and famous Hendrick Motorsports – home of now-six-time champion Jimmie Johnson and four-time champion Jeff Gordon – in an effort to win a championship. Instead things got even worse. He won just one race his first year. He didn’t win at all the next year … or the next year … or the year after that.

The Junior Nation fans, though, they still loved him – maybe even more than they had when he was winning – and the endorsement opportunities poured in, and he kept running away with the “Most Popular Driver” award. He didn’t know how to feel about that. Why was he so popular? Was it all his father? He treated people well, and he was honest to a fault, and he respected the sport and its history … he knew people liked that part of him. He did know that. But why couldn’t he drive fast anymore?

Junior says he was anxious all the time. He was nervous all the time. Junior felt an old fear reemerging.

“I just did not want to be a footnote,” he would say. “I just did not want to be a footnote in Dad’s story.”


Junior at 40 eats better. Junior at 40 sleeps better. Junior at 40 likes going to the track and working with his team; he talks a lot to the guys about their families or their pet projects or the dentist appointment that they just went through. Junior at 40 is more aware.

Junior at 40 has a steady girlfriend, Amy Reimann, and he says that she gives him something he hasn’t had in a long time – a second voice. “She has given me confidence outside the car, so I do things I typically wouldn’t do,” Junior says. “It’s as simple as having someone to talk to, someone to contradict your opinion about things, someone to help you see things a different way.”

Junior at 40 says he feels way younger than 40. He appreciates the experience, but he doesn’t even like mentioning the age. “Compared to my physical age,” he says, “I feel like I’m 10 years behind mentally. I have an understanding in life I should have had 10 years ago. I feel good, I feel young, my mind’s mentally young. I have a lot of passion still from what I’m doing.”

[parallax src=”” height=1000 credit=”Dale Earnhardt chases his first Sprint Cup title this season. (Getty Images)”]

Junior at 40 is racing better than he has in a decade, maybe ever.

“I saw this thing in a movie,” Junior says. “It’s like: ‘When the game of life is over, people may remember the score for a while but they’ll always remember how the game is played.’ I know it’s a cliché, but I like that a lot. I sort of adopted that as a slogan when I was running good. I thought, ‘They’re not going to remember where I finished if I was a great guy and treated people well.

“But as you get older, the more and more true that becomes, I think. It’s not just a cliché. Once you’re done racing, people aren’t going to go, ‘He won X.’ People are going to ask, ‘What was he really like? What was he like to work with? How did he treat you?’ That’s the stuff that matters.”


Ages 37-39

Steve Letarte doesn’t know exactly what was going on in Rick Hendrick’s mind. Letarte had worked his entire career for Jeff Gordon, and that relationship on the track was languishing. In 2008, with Letarte as crew chief, Gordon failed to win a single race for the first time in 15 years. The next year was only slightly better. On the day Hendrick called Letarte into the office, he felt absolutely sure that he was about to be let go.

Instead, Hendrick told Letarte that he would become crew chief for Junior.

“I don’t think it was ever said,” Letarte says. “But we were both in positions in our careers where we both needed to improve. I went winless with Jeff Gordon. He’s underperforming at Hendrick Motorsports. It was a big kick in the gut for both of us.”

Letarte talks much faster than Junior. Words and eye contact come easily to him. He never looks at the ground.

“Rick,” he says, “is a genius for putting people together.”

Letarte and Junior feed off each other – Letarte is a perfectionist who obsesses over every detail, Junior a natural racer who understands the give-and-take of a 500- or 600-mile. “To him, racing is racing,” Letarte says. “It doesn’t matter if it’s go-karts or NASCAR. I’ve learned that from him. … I tend to overcomplicate things. He simplifies things. I think that’s how we help each other.”

[insert-quote text=”And all the stories now stay with the theme: Junior at 40 is growing up. The stories, Junior says, are true. The stories, Junior says, are not the whole truth. You know?” align=center]

They both finally won a race in 2012 at Michigan. But more to the point, they found themselves contending every week. Junior felt himself slowly changing, becoming more consistent, becoming someone his team could rely on both on and off the track. They won at Daytona this year, and they are still in The Championship Chase even if it will come down to Talladega.

And all the stories now stay with the theme: Junior at 40 is growing up. The stories, Junior says, are true. The stories, Junior says, are not the whole truth. You know?

“You know how when you’re a kid and you measure yourself on a door jamb?” Junior says. “You can’t see it. You make the mark on the wall, turn around, and see you’ve grown four or five inches or whatever. It’s like that. You or me, we look at the stats and we go, ‘Yeah, something happened. What happened?

“It’s hard to say. I got with Steve, and over that period of time, on a gradual scale, things got better. There wasn’t a moment that stands out. … Something happened, and that’s what everybody’s going to write about and talk about. But it’s, well, I don’t really know what it is. You know?”


Junior at 40 talks about the future. He is sad that Letarte is leaving the team, but he insists that it is much emotional for Letarte than it is for him. “His whole life’s gonna change,” Junior says. “For us, except for Steve, we’re keeping the whole team intact.

“We’re going to miss Steve, of course … but I hope fans don’t see this as our only opportunity. To me, I see no reason why we can’t be in the mix for two or three more years at least. I think that’s realistic, I really do.

Junior has grown famous through the years for being realistic or, as he likes to say it, “I see no reason to pump sunshine when there is no sunshine.” In years past, that realism has sometimes morphed into pessimism and despair. Jimmie Johnson can remember times in the past when he’s reached out to help Junior only to be politely turned away. “It wasn’t anything personal, Junior just likes to work things out on his own,” Johnson says. “But now, we talk a lot. We’ve both grown up a lot.”

Junior at 40 says he just feels more disciplined in his life. He still does the kid’s stuff, still plays video games a lot, still goofs around a lot. But he thinks about the future. He gets more involved with his business affairs – his Charlotte night club, his Nationwide race teams, his many endorsements and particularly his car dealerships in Tallahassee.

“I’m fascinated by the dealerships,” he says. “My father owned a dealership in Newton where I worked when I was younger, and he was very proud of the way that dealership was run. When I think about my days after racing, I think about what’s going to get me out of bed in the morning and be exciting. I think the dealerships might be it.”

That Junior thinks about his days after racing at all tells you something. But Junior at 40 is quick to say he doesn’t think very much about being 50. He thinks more about his Dad.

“I think he would be proud of what we’ve done on the race track,” Junior says. “I think that’s what would matter to him most. My personal life, he would probably be happy with where that’s been going. But I know he would be really proud of what we’ve done on the racetrack. I really believe that.”

And so when you ask Dale Earnhardt, Jr. what he still wants to do, he smiles and looks up into your eyes.

“I just want to make him proud,” he says. “That’s what I’ve always wanted. I think I’ve gotten out of that shadow. When they tell the story of Ralph and Dad, you know, maybe I’m a couple of pages now. Maybe I can get a couple more.”

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    Once more, with feeling

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

    How does it FEEL, Jimmie?

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

    How does it FEEL, Jimmie?

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

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

    “Wonderful,” he says.

    “Surreal,” he says.

    “Incredible,” he says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

    * * *

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

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

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

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

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

    * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    [nbcsports_mpx url=]

    Johnson begins to turn red, “I mean …”

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

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

    Earnhardt doesn’t say a word.

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

    * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    And, inside the car, Johnson fell asleep

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

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

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

    * * *

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

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

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

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

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

    Did he?

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

    * * *

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

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

    “No sir.”

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

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

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

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

    The fourth wheel

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

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

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

    1. Junior Johnson, 50 wins

    2. Mark Martin, 40 wins

    3. Fireball Roberts, 33 wins

    4. Denny Hamlin, 29 wins

    5. Carl Edwards, 28 wins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    One for the history books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    And so, this race is for him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Promises, promises

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “What do you know?” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    The Magic Man

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    No more fun and games

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

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

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

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

    But something has obviously changed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    The remarkable rise of Andy Murray

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Tiger Woods won 14 of them, as mentioned.

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

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

    So, yes, Tiger Woods was disheartening.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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