There are no curses left in the world. None. Break a mirror? It’s fine. Open all your umbrellas indoors? Rock an empty rocking chair, cross a black cat, walk under a ladder, step on a crack, stay in room 1313 on Friday the 13th — that’s all over with.

The Chicago Cubs are in the World Series. They are playing the Cleveland Indians. And one of these teams will WIN the World Series. The age of curses is over!

Hi everyone. Mike Schur here. Just popping in real quick, right here at the beginning of this piece, with a public service announcement: There is no such thing as curses. Joe is waxing poetic here, and I know that he knows that there is no such thing as curses, but anytime anyone mentions a “curse,” with respect to baseball franchises and their histories of futility, I feel the need to remind everyone that there is no such thing as curses. There is only decades-old systemic mismanagement, and haplessness, and random chance. So, really, that first paragraph should technically read thus:

“There are no curses. None. There never have been. The Cubs were owned by incompetent owners and run by a string of mostly incompetent general managers and managed by mostly incompetent managers, and now they are not. So. The Chicago Cubs are in the World Series.”

(It’s not as fun. I get it.)

Hey, wait a minute — how did you get in here?

You shared the Google doc with me, man. This is 100 percent on you.

I don’t know technology, man. Anyway, if I had known we were doing this together again, I would have toned down the opening a little bit. It’s true, there are no such things as curses. Michael and I, when we have the time, do plan on going on a national mission to force hotel management teams to call their 13th floor “the 13th floor,” because we do not believe that we can advance as a species until this is done.

That and ending “Black Friday” shopping riots. We are doomed as a people until there are no more humans injured in shopping malls trying to fight each other over a 20-percent-discounted flat screen TV.

So yes, it’s also true that the Chicago Cubs have not made the World Series for the last 71 years because:

  1. For a time, kooky owner Philip K. Wrigley did not believe in farm systems. He thought the minor leagues should be entirely independent, a noble thought that wasn’t shared by the Dodgers, Giants and Braves. So those teams won. And the Cubs lost.


  1. For a time, kooky owner Philip K. Wrigley believed in sending a hypnotist on the road with the team to put hexes on opponents. This did not work.


The Cubs then tried an experiment where they would rotate managers throughout the year. This also did not work.

Had a better chance of working than the hex thing.

  1. The Cubs had a few teams good enough to get to the World Series. They just didn’t. They lost decisive playoff games in 1984 and 2003, not because of curses or a loyal fan named Steve Bartman, but because even really good baseball teams lose quite often.

The Cubs’ history is the light beer version of the Red Sox’s history. At least the Cubs’ owner wasn’t a virulent racist (as far as I know), who had the chance to sign Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays and passed on both of them because, um, they weren’t good enough to make the team? (Sure, let’s go with that.) These “cursed” teams are just franchises run by goobers who actively hurt their own on-field product with incompetence.

You would have to think that even the biggest racists in Boston at that time would have thought — “Yeah, I know, but he’s WILLIE MAYS!”

Anyway, the story of racist and dimwitted owners bumbling through history with ludicrous free agent signings and 10-cent beer nights is so much less poetic. We’re writers man. It’s baseball. Can’t we at least use the Billy Goat curse and Curse of Chief Wahoo as a background to tell the story of this landmark World Series between Chicago and Cleveland, the two most cursed baseball teams in America?

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OK, then. To be fair, there was a wonderful moment of non-curse clarity in the ninth inning of the Cubs’ super-simple 5-0 clinching victory over the Dodgers in Game 6. Aroldis Chapman was pitching, which, admittedly, doesn’t perfectly fit the Disneyesque ending. One out. Dodgers catcher Carlos Ruiz was at the plate.

Ruiz turned on a Chapman fastball but didn’t quite get it — he pulled it foul. The ball floated toward the left-field stands and into the same general area where in 2003 Steve Bartman innocently reached for a foul ball and had the entire world crash down on him. It wasn’t exactly the same spot, but it was close enough to unearth that memory.

What was striking was that nobody cared. There wasn’t any sense of foreboding, no scary music, no shadows lurking in the dark. It was like dad FINALLY walked into the kids’ closet, opened it up and shouted “See! No monsters in here! Go to sleep!” The super-talented Cubs kids didn’t worry AT ALL about ghosts or skeletons or witches or any of that Halloween stuff. They just decided to win, because (gasp) they are better at baseball.

So, I’m a Red Sox fan. I don’t know if I’ve ever mentioned that before.

What? Boston Red Sox? When did this happen?

And this is exactly the point that gave me comfort, back in 2004, when things got dicey — none of the players cared about Babe Ruth, curses, Johnny Pesky holding the ball, Bucky Dent, any of it. I would repeat that to myself, over and over: “Kevin Millar does not care about Bucky Dent. Bill Mueller does not care about Bucky Dent. Manny Ramirez has never heard of Bucky Dent, and certainly doesn’t care about Bucky Dent, and also literally does not know the names of half of his own teammates.” The same is certainly true of this Cubs team. Javier Baez is way too busy doing superhuman baseball things to think about the ancient history of the city he plays in.

This gets to the heart of baseball — of sports — in so many ways. We assign so much meaning to everything these players do, right? Curses. Legends. Myths. We turn losing streaks into existential crises and good coaching moves into fits of surpassing brilliance and crucial sports confrontations into epic poems — the pitcher, the hitter, all them reaching within, summoning the courage and grit and audacity, finding the hero inside. We do this because it makes sports fun. But, realistically, Manny Ramirez hit .327 in his career with runners in scoring position and I doubt there were any sonnets going off in his brain at that moment.

In 1994, Manny Ramirez walked into his clubhouse (in Cleveland) and saw people gathered around the TV, talking about how the police were looking for O.J.  He then got very concerned, because he didn’t know what his teammate, Chad Ogea, had done to make the police look for him.

He never thought about the historical implications of the Red Sox’s futility streak. I promise.

Now, it’s true, Manny Ramirez is a bit of an extreme example. But I suspect that most player mindsets are much closer to that of Manny than that of, say, Roger Angell or Bob Costas or someone finding the larger meaning of it all. My suspicion is that if the Chicago players — or Cleveland’s players — start to think about what has happened in their city the last half-century, what their teams have come to represent, what winning might mean to all those people that are being written about, they will collapse into a heap of stammers and coughs.

But they won’t. That’s the whole point. The final double-play groundball of the Cubs-Dodgers series went Addison Russell-to-Baez-to-Anthony Rizzo — sort of a modern day Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance — and they executed it perfectly because they’ve trained to do it that way. And they weren’t thinking about billy goats or black cats or Ernie Banks. They’re kids who play baseball with joy and preposterous skill.

Here’s what’s scary: they’re not only the best team in baseball, they’re also one of the youngest. Russell is 22 years old. Baez is 23. Bryant is 24. Rizzo, the grizzled veteran, is 27. That’s your infield — all of them All-Stars — for the next five years, at least. They’re so good they could absorb losing 23-year-old Kyle Schwarber for the year, and skip right over Jason Heyward’s 26-year-old season being a complete wash, and not miss a beat. This team is so young! I bet every night after the game David Ross has to dress all of them in their grown-up clothes and make sure they drink their juice.

David Ross is 39 years old. I remember a time, not so long ago, when I thoroughly enjoyed making fun of 39-year-old athletes. Here’s a cool little bit on David Ross: He has hit 106 career home runs, which means he has had a very nice career. Can you name the pitcher off whom he hit his first homer? It was first baseman Mark Grace, who was put into the game because Arizona had run out of pitchers. The homer made the score 18-1.

And while we’re talking David Ross trivia, do you know how he got into that game? He came in as a pinch-hitter for … current Dodgers manager Dave Roberts! Nutty!

David Ross is a low-key baseball Forrest Gump.

Do you think this is the kind of trivial nonsense that makes non-baseball fans despise the game and us?

Who cares? It’s awesome.

The Cubs really are absurdly young. And that means they will probably be the favorite to win the World Series for the next five years. In other words, they better enjoy being the lovable Cubs because, as Red Sox fans know (you are a Red Sox fan, right?), that lovability goes away quickly. After this Cubs team has won three World Series in five years, EVERYONE will despise them.

MORE: HardballTalk’s World Series preview | Game 1 reset: Lester vs. Kluber

But the Cubs are lovable now, and this is awkward for my hometown of Cleveland. You might have heard this: Cleveland has had its own sports demons. Cleveland had a nice run as the lovable team. Now Clevelanders are like: “Hey, over here, um, you know, those Cubs have not won since 1908, we get it, but, just so you know, we haven’t won a World Series since 1948. That’s also a long time ago.”

And the whole country is like: “YOU GOT YOUR CHAMPIONSHIP! SHUT UP!”

If the Indians win, maybe people would start to grumble about Cleveland. But a city that’s been in the drought Cleveland’s been in gets at least two before everyone turns on them for no reason. Plus, you’ll always have the Browns to keep you humble.

You had to bring up the Browns, didn’t you? Worst team in sports, right? I mean, nobody else is pulling off the Marx Brothers routine with the panache and spectacular comedic timing as the Browns.

The Browns are remarkable. They never get better. How is it possible, to never get any better?

Turns out if you keep drafting terrible players, the team doesn’t get any better. Who knew?

We’ve gone over how there aren’t any real curses left in the world, but I think even two grounded, worldly, skeptical people can admit that Theo Epstein is a witch, right? Or wizard, whatever.

Let’s go with wizard. Or supergenius. Or “Mike’s Best Friend, Probably, If They Ever Hung Out.”

Really? OK, yeah, I can see it. Theo would have to be on anybody’s top five, “Guys that you really wish were your best friend,” list. I’m thinking the list should look like this:

  1. Lin Manuel-Miranda
  2. Theo Epstein
  3. Nick Offerman
  4. Steph Curry
  5. James Corden

My list:

  1. Theo Epstein
  2. David Ortiz
  3. Steph Curry
  4. Beyoncé
  5. Whoever Beyoncé’s actual best friend Is (so I’d be one degree of separation away from Beyoncé)

Back to Theo — it seems to me everyone in America can agree now that after ending the Boston Red Sox drought AND ending the Chicago Cubs drought in the same lifetime, he should be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame immediately — no voting, no waiting period. And just inducting him is not enough. They should have a “Theo Epstein Hall of Fame Week” in Cooperstown — like Shark Week but with Cracker Jack — and then they should rename various baseball actions after him, like the double play (“grounder to short, flip to second, over to first, that’s a Theo Epstein and the inning is over”).

I think there’s a very good case to make that no matter what happens, he has sealed his induction. Right? How many GMs have had better runs? With two “cursed” teams? Here are the only things he could do, at this point, that would be more impressive than what he has done:

  1. Take over the Cleveland Browns and win a Super Bowl
  2. Become Prime Minister of Mauritius and turn it into a global superpower
  3. Run Curt Schilling’s campaign for Massachusetts senator and get him to within 30 percent of a win

You’re a Boston fan, right? This whole Schilling-running-for-office thing has to sting.

Yes, not sure I’ve mentioned this but I am a Boston fan. We’re all trying to ignore it. He’s making it hard, but we’re trying. Curt, if you’re reading this, I beg you: Do not run for Senate. Go ahead and tweet whatever you want — it’s a free country, and we can all mute you, so go nuts. But don’t run. Every time you open your mouth, it’s like learning that Gregory Peck used to torture animals for sport.

Back to Theo again. People are always trying to get him to say which achievement he finds more rewarding: Red Sox or Cubs? I’ve personally heard him asked that question a dozen times … and that was BEFORE the Cubs even got to the World Series.

Seems to me that’s a pretty cynical question. Hey, Shakespeare, what did you like better, MacBeth or Hamlet? I mean, this guy guided the team of his childhood, the team his family idolized, to its first World Series in 86 years. And then he built baseball’s punchline, the Chicago Cubs, from the ground up, and now they’ve reached their first World Series since World War II.

Why does one have to be better? I mean, can’t he enjoy them both equally?

He’d never say it, but I think he might be “prouder” of this one. Simply because when he took over, the cupboard was so bare. In Boston, when he took over, they had Pedro Martinez, Manny, Johnny Damon and Nomar Garciaparra, plus Kevin Youkilis in the minors. He made a string of brilliant moves, but they had a core, and the Cubs had nothing close to that core. Boston’s win might have made him happier, but I bet a Cubs win would make him prouder.

That’s a fair point. I know that after that stunning early success in Boston, Epstein craved the chance to build his own team. Boston was, as you might know, a blend of many different visions. Theo used to talk about the romance of taking over some small-market team like Milwaukee or Minnesota and somehow making them a winner despite the limitations. I can remember telling him that, having been around small-market teams, it ain’t that romantic.

Then he got the PERFECT situation — a big-market team that had small-market sensibilities. I know he has loved working with GM Jed Hoyer and many other people to create a whole new vision for the Chicago Cubs (the first year, he proudly showed me this manual they called “The Cubs Way!” I think there was an exclamation point). And then, after they created that small-market vision, hey, what do you know, the Cubs had a few hundred-million dollars to get Jon Lester and Heyward (sigh) and Ben Zobrist.

In that way, yes, I suspect the Cubs achievement does give him a bigger sense of pride. But I would bet he likes both accomplishments equally.

One of the cool things about this World Series is that I think you are matching up the two best managers in baseball. Well, two of the top three — you have to throw Bruce Bochy in there. But if I was a baseball owner and I could hire any manager on earth, I’d only have three interviews. One would be Joe Maddon. Two would be Terry Francona. Three would be Beyonce.

See, I’d meet with Beyoncé first, then Tito, then Joe. I bet ‘Bey has some very advanced ideas about infield platoons.

Well, she is ***Flawless. See how I brought in a once hip pop-culture reference to make this thing lit?

Yes. Great work, grandpa.

These kids with their rock and roll and the pants hanging down … hey, how do you do that with Beyonce? Get the little e thing on the end? Beyoncé — like that?

Yes. Option-e, then e again. (This is riveting journalism, right now.)

Wow: é. Anyway, what makes Maddon and Francona so good? When I asked Epstein about his manager, he didn’t talk about Maddon’s practical tactical brilliance. He talked about how COOL Maddon is. As subjective as that is, I think there’s something to it. Yes, Maddon and Francona are strategists who push baseball boundaries. Yes, they both have a great sense for the moment — when to take the big gamble, when to hold back. Yes, they both know how to motivate players and they’re not weak-kneed about confrontation.

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But beyond all that, Maddon and Tito are just cool people, the sort of people you want to do well for. Have you ever had a boss like that?

…I mean, sure, they seem “cool.” I think what makes them good is that they do things like use Andrew Miller in high-leverage situations in the fifth inning, and employ well-researched defensive shifts.

Or maybe it’s your “rad boss” theory.

You mock, but there are plenty of good tactical managers out there. That is undoubtedly part of it, a big part. I think there’s something else too. Let’s face it: These are kids playing baseball. Even the veterans are mostly in their late 20s and early 30s. They are a few years out of high school and college and they are talented and rich and beloved and in demand. They play 200 games together in a year, including spring training and postseason, and they lose a whole bunch of them, and they go into nasty slumps that they can’t explain, and some smart-ass on the radio or on Twitter rips them and … I’m just saying I’d sure as heck like Maddon as my manager. Or Francona. Or Beyonce (Beyoncé).

I heard Maddon on Mike and Mike, and they asked him what he said to his team after they got shut out twice in a row, and were down 2-1 to the Dodgers. He said, “I didn’t say anything.” I believe him — I feel like he isn’t the guy to give some big speech. He has low blood pressure. My favorite Maddon quote was when he was asked, last year, about feeling the pressure of the Cubs making a playoff run under the shadow of the “curse,” and he said, “I don’t vibrate at that frequency.” That’s a great quote. So maybe you’re right — it is that he’s a cool dude.

You mentioned Andrew Miller, which I think is a nice transition to the “analytical” portion of our World Series preview. We definitely need something witty to call it like Phil Simms’ “Phil-osophy.”

How about: “Joe and Mike’s Rambling World Series Preview-slash-Beyoncé Appreciation Hour?”

Perfect. And don’t forget, “Plus sly little Hamilton references that most people will miss.” For Cleveland, clearly, it all comes down to two players. Well, it doesn’t really, it never comes down to two players, but you can’t have one of these analytical breakdowns without oversimplifying everything and avoiding the nuances and complications of real life.

But you have to make them so big and broad that you can claim you were right. “Phil-osophy: This Super Bowl will come down to two things: The Broncos’ defense, and Cam Newton’s ability to score points.”

The first of those players is Miller, Cleveland’s dark lord reliever who in these playoffs has this line:

11.2 innings, five hits, zero runs, two walks, 21 strikeouts, .355 OPS against.

That’s scary stuff, almost as scary as his awesome beard.  I’m not really a beard guy, but it works for him. The Yankees made a terrible mistake making him shave that beard … oh, and also trading him.

Miller is worth a whole column of his own. He was a can’t-miss prospect as a starter, the sixth pick overall. Then he washed out of Detroit and Florida, and nearly out of Boston. I mean, the guy couldn’t throw a strike to save his life. As a starter, he walked between five and NINE guys per nine innings. Then, Boston converted him to a reliever, he cut his walks by two-thirds, and now he’s maybe the best three-to-six out pitcher in the game. You referred to him in our PosCast as a “superweapon.” That’s an apt analysis.

Let’s give our pal Brandon McCarthy his due for the Miller line of the postseason when he wrote: “Baseball is so rooted in traditions that hitters still take their bats to the plate against Andrew Miller even though they’re not needed.”

Miller does feel like a modern superweapon. He’s not — he’s more of a throwback to the 1970s fireman than a new invention. But it has been so long since anyone has seen anything like him (and no fireman in the 1970s was a 6-foot-6 lefty with a high-90s fastball and a blood-curdling slider). He pitches two innings every single time that Cleveland is in a winnable game. I can’t help but wonder if Miller is the guy who finally breaks managers out of their boring one-inning closer cycle.

If not he, than who?

Chapter review question: Buck Showalter. Why? Discuss.

You’re talking about him not using Zach Britton, I assume. In which case the answer is: “Because he blew it.”

In the meantime, with Cleveland’s rotation a wreck, it sure seems like Miller is Cleveland’s one hope against this Cubs lineup. He might pitch two innings every game. Maybe three. Heck, he might just start every game that Corey Kluber cannot (Kluber and Miller/and the rest is all filler).

This is where we point out how amazing it is that the Indians are in the World Series despite losing Danny Salazar (for a long time) and Carlos Carrasco (for the season). Amazing.

Definitely amazing. And don’t forget Michael Brantley — he was the team’s best hitter. He’s missed almost the whole year.

The other Cleveland player to talk about: Francisco Lindor. I’m going to make a hard admission. Many people know that the Derek Jeter lovefest drove me absolutely crazy. It wasn’t Jeter himself — he was a fantastic player, a Hall of Famer, etc. But if anything good happened on planet Earth, big or small — a war ended, a stray dog was taken in, a lost iPad was returned, a disease was cured — Derek Jeter got the credit.


Now, I’m still against giving a player an overwhelming amount of credit for stuff that he has nothing to do with. But after watching Lindor with Cleveland … I understand the impulse. Lindor is a very good baseball player — a superior defender, a good hitter, a fine base-runner.

But he also has this thing, the thing Jeter had, I don’t know, this energy, this charisma, this presence, and you see how his teammates respond to him, you see how the fans respond to him, you see how he’s the ONLY Cleveland guy hitting in the postseason (rest of the team hit .138 in Toronto series). And, yes, you find yourself thinking that this guy never does anything wrong and is responsible for all good things in the world.

It’s very exciting to think about Lindor and Baez on baseball’s biggest stage. Two remarkable all-around players. Defensive magicians. They are about to become un-anonymous.

Javy Baez. Now THAT is a whole column waiting to happen. But we’re 200,000 words into this one and so we have to go on. Leave it at this — Javy Baez: Wow.

The Cubs are easier to analyze: They’re awesome. The whole team. They’re have the best starting pitching in baseball. They have a ridiculous lineup with fantastic young hitters. They are an absurdly great fielding team. They’re better than a healthy Cleveland team. They’re considerably better than this Cleveland team.

They would basically have every check mark on the matchup chart except bullpen — and the guy at the end of their bullpen throws 87 million mph.

I am going out on a limb here: I think their reliance on Chapman is their weakness. Yes, he throws impossibly hard, but he is hittable. He is more hittable than Kenley Jansen, more hittable than Miller for sure — and in his career he has walked more than four guys per nine innings. He would make me very nervous, were I a Cubs fan.

Totally agree. If the score is tied in the sixth or later, I’d feel better about Cleveland’s pen. If the Cubs are up one run, I don’t think the Cleveland hitters would feel the same helplessness as Cubs hitters might against Miller. Still, it should be said again that Chapman throws 87,000,000 mph.

And it’s baseball. It’s a short series. Jared Diamond at the Wall Street Journal just wrote a piece about how the Cubs are so good they have (to quote the headline) “built a team to transcend the crapshoot nature of playoff baseball.”


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Well, I don’t buy that at all. The Cubs needed a miracle inning to beat the Giants in Game 4 or else they would have faced a rested Johnny Cueto and the indestructible Madison Bumgarner in Game 5. Heck, it was only a few days ago that the Cubs were down 2-1 to the Dodgers and, realistically, they got some help from the Dodgers in the one game they won. I don’t think any team is built so well that they are immune to the crapshootiness of baseball.

The Warriors lost. The 18-0 Patriots lost. The 116-win Mariners lost. No team in any sport is immune to short-series variance. Except the 2016-17 Warriors. They are going to win every game they play, by 50, with their starters playing 18 minutes a game.

The crapshootiness — I like that word — gives us some legitimate questions to ask:

First: Will Cleveland run wild on Jon Lester, who seems unable to make a pickoff throw to first base?

Here’s something you don’t know about me: I’m a Red Sox fan.

Wait? Since when?

And I have to say that Terry Francona instructing his players to take advantage of Jon Lester’s throwing-to-first-base yips fills me with a deep existential sadness that I’m not sure I will be able to come back from. If Mike Napoli, or Coco Crisp, steals on Lester at Francona’s command, I will start crying very hard.

The Lester throwing yips is one of the weirdest things in the world, right? I mean throwing a baseball is ALL HE DOES. He has impeccable command and control when pitching a baseball but he can’t flip a ball to first base? I know there are other examples of such maladies, like Mackey Sasser’s inability to throw the ball back to the pitcher. But Lester’s thing feels different. I mean: His whole job is throwing a baseball, something he does about as well as anyone on earth. It’s like finding out that Eric Clapton can’t play “Louie Louie.”

What’s even weirder is that the Dodgers didn’t try to take advantage of it, more. He has managed to compensate a little by varying his pause, and by shortening his leg kick out of the stretch, but he literally can’t throw to first. Why are you not running on every pitch?!

That was weird, wasn’t it? The Dodgers’ runners would take these HUGE leads, like they were on the playground shouting “Na-na-na–boo-boo!” just DARING Lester to throw over — and he would not. And instead of just taking the stolen base, they would go back to the bag as he pitched like, “Aw! That didn’t work.”

Second question: What the heck has happened to Jason Heyward? I mean, it’s true, he was never a GREAT hitter. He made his bones (and his $184 million contract) with versatility and multiple talents. He’s a great outfielder. He’s a terrific base-runner. He hit well enough and with some power. He was a package deal, like one of those do-everything gadgets you get at Brookstone.

Now: Can’t hit. I mean: CANNOT HIT. It’s like an amnesia scene in a movie. He’s hitting .071 in the postseason, and he’s looked worse than that. I’m not exactly sure what Maddon does with him.

He plays him, I think, against righties. But he is the first guy out in a double switch. Every at-bat is fastball strike one, fastball strike two, slider down-and-in strike three (swinging). He’s utterly lost. If the rest of that Cubs lineup weren’t so deep and solid, he would be getting an enormous amount of scrutiny. (But also, this is the World Series, and if he hits one seventh-inning home run to put his team up in a game they win, all is forgotten.)

If he strikes out, though, with the bases loaded in the ninth, it becomes a much bigger deal.

So, yeah, if you want to pick at the Cubs’ scabs, you can. Which Jake Arrieta will we see? Will the Cubs’ bats go silent again like they did for periods in the Giants and Dodgers series? Can Cleveland win Kansas City Royals-style: scrape together for a few runs, shorten the game and then blow the Cubs away in the late innings with their bullpen?

Possible. But, there’s this: The Chicago Cubs are the best team in baseball. That doesn’t stop sounding weird, but it is true. They’re one of the best teams so far this century, I think. And it sure feels like this is their year.

Agree. To quote the Mountain Goats: Cubs in Five.

You just quoted the Mountain Goats. I think Cubs in six or seven, but holding out for the hometown Tribe. One thing I think we can all agree on is that the Curse of Chief Wahoo is much more powerful than the Curse of the Billy Goat.

Objection. Asked and answered.

  1. Maybe this will be the Series that Cleveland finally decides to retire that logo. Can’t they just see that the “C” is SO MUCH BETTER … and also does not mock an entire group of people? Can’t they just let it disappear?

Now THAT is something we can all root for.

Also Beyonce. Or, sorry, Beyoncé.

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    Peter King goes 1-on-1 with Cowboys’ Jason Witten

    Year: 2017
    Runtime: 19:25
    Originally aired on: NBC

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    Off Script: Jeremy Roenick opens up on career, family

    Jeremy Roenick was as outspoken as he was talented during his 20-year NHL career.

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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.

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

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

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

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

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

    * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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    Johnson begins to turn red, “I mean …”

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

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

    Earnhardt doesn’t say a word.

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

    * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    And, inside the car, Johnson fell asleep

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

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

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

    * * *

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

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

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

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

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

    Did he?

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

    * * *

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

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

    “No sir.”

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

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

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

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

    The fourth wheel

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

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

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

    1. Junior Johnson, 50 wins

    2. Mark Martin, 40 wins

    3. Fireball Roberts, 33 wins

    4. Denny Hamlin, 29 wins

    5. Carl Edwards, 28 wins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    One for the history books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    And so, this race is for him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Promises, promises

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “What do you know?” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    The Magic Man

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    [nbcsports_mpx url=]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    No more fun and games

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

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

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

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

    But something has obviously changed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    The remarkable rise of Andy Murray

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Tiger Woods won 14 of them, as mentioned.

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

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

    So, yes, Tiger Woods was disheartening.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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