Let’s make a steal

Over the years, there have been a million “What’s the worst trade in baseball history” stories, giving everyone a moment to relive the horrors of Brock for Broglio, Robinson for Pappas or a young player to be named for Bris Lord — the young player turning out to be a kid named Shoeless Joe Jackson.

A reader, Jack Bartram, writes in with a different idea. He believes the most lopsided trade in baseball history is not one of those more famous ones. He thinks it happened when the Houston Astros mostly washed-up slugger Glenn Davis to Baltimore for Steve Finley, Curt Schilling and Pete Harnisch. See, the three players Baltimore got compiled 141 Wins Above Replacement after the trade, while Davis managed less than one win. That is likely the biggest WAR difference in the history of deals.

Thing is: While that was obviously a horrendous deal for Baltimore — and I imagine Orioles fans of the 1990s have dreamed of life with Schilling as their ace and Finley in the outfield — it wasn’t necessarily a great trade for Houston. That’s because the Astros traded all three of those players away BEFORE they paid dividends. Combined, the three put up about 14 wins above replacement before being traded away.

So this led to an idea: For a trade to be lopsided, really lopsided, both teams should powerfully feel its impact. For instance, in 2004 New York Mets traded Australian minor leaguer Justin Huber to Kansas City for Jose Bautista. This was obviously a hugely lopsided deal — Huber played 72 uneventful big league games while Bautista became one of the best players in baseball.

But, I don’t really think it can count as a lopsided deal because Bautista never played even a single game in a Mets uniform. They traded him off in a package to Pittsburgh that brought along Kris Benson. And THAT can’t count as a lopsided deal either because Bautista played four lackluster years for the Pirates before Pittsburgh sent him to Toronto for Robinson Diaz.

And that, finally, WAS a lopsided trade:

Bautista in Toronto: 34.3 Wins Above Replacement.

Diaz in Pittsburgh: 0.6 Wins Above Replacement.

So, that’s a huge difference of 33.7 WAR. That places it in the Top 50 or so of best/worst deals in baseball history.

No, admittedly, this method of ranking trades has its limitations. Every method does. By simply calculating WAR, you can miss the context of trades. When the Braves traded Adam Wainwright and others to St. Louis for a one season of J.D. Drew, that was always was likely to be heavily tilted toward the Cardinals (there’s a 23-win difference now, and counting). But the Braves were thinking about a short-term drive toward a championship, and Drew played fantastic in his one season, leading the Braves to 96 wins and National League East title. So, simply counting WAR isn’t really a fair measure of that trade.

Also, sometimes these players bring return value in future trades. The Reds trading Paul Konerko to the White Sox for Mike Cameron was a huge WAR loss (23 wins difference to Chicago), but Cameron was a part of the deal that brought Ken Griffey Jr. home to Cincinnati.

Anyway, wall these complicating factors aside, this is still a pretty fun way to determine the most lopsided trades in baseball history.  Let’s start with a few honorable mentions:

Phillies trade Ferguson Jenkins and Adolfo Phillips to Cubs for Bob Buhl and Larry Jackson

Difference: 46 WAR.

So much is made of the Cubs sending Lou Brock to the Cardinals for Ernie Broglio — perhaps the most famous bad/good trade in baseball history — that this one usually gets overlooked. But in truth, this was an even more one-sided trade than Brock for Broglio, which had a 41.9 WAR difference.

Mets trade Amos Otis and Bob Johnson to Kansas City for Joe Foy

Difference: 47 WAR

The Kansas City Royals made a series of amazing trades in the early 1970s — for Fred Patek, John Mayberry and Hal McRae among others — and this was the best one. Otis became the first real star in Royals history.

Padres trade Ozzie Smith to St. Louis for Garry Templeton, Sixto Lezcano and Luis Deleon

Difference: 47 WAR

At the time, it was viewed as a swap of perhaps the two most exciting young shortstops in baseball. Templeton was a sensational young hitter; Ozzie Smith couldn’t hit. Numerous analysts of the time thought the Padres got the better of the deal.

December 10, 1991: Astros send Kenny Lofton to Cleveland for Eddie Taubensee

Difference: 50 WAR

Many scouts just never believed Lofton would hit. As it turned out, he had a near-Hall of Fame career.

Red Sox trade Babe Ruth to Yankees for cash

Difference: 143 WAR

I list this because it’s famous but it’s not really a trade. There were no other players involved. The Red Sox got $100,000, the Yankees got 142.7 wins above replacement. That adds up to $700.77 per win. To be fair: $700.77 was worth more in those days.

And now, here we go, the ten most uneven trades in baseball history:

10. April 12, 1960: Indians trade Norm Cash to Detroit for Steve Demeter

Difference: 52 WAR

In Cleveland, we grew up on the dark mythology of the Rocky Colavito trade. On April 17, 1960,  Cleveland general manager Frank Lane created a national stir when he traded home run champion and local hero Rocky Colavito to Detroit for batting champion Harvey Kuenn.

The idea of a home run champ for a batting champ was exciting at the time when those were the two biggest statistics in baseball. But, the trade was viewed as disastrous in Cleveland right from the start. First of all, Cleveland loved Colavito. The day it happened the Cleveland Press reported fans calling in 10-to-1 against the deal.

Second of all, even in those days when batting average was king, there was a general understanding that a low average power hitter like Colavito had more value than a high average singles hitter like Kuenn. As New York’s Elston Howard said, “How can they give away a guy who hits 42 homers and knocks in 111 runs even for someone like Kuenn?”

Third, Colavito was younger than Kuenn. True, it was only about three years but they were the RIGHT three years — Colavito was 26 and entering his prime when he went to Detroit, Kuenn was 29 and coming out of his when he got to Cleveland. That trade was, as has often been repeated, a disaster. Pal Terry Pluto wrote a book called “The Curse of Rocky Colavito.”

And so it was easy to miss that five days earlier, Lane made an EVEN WORSE trade — made one of the worst trades in baseball history.

Norm Cash never played a single game for Cleveland. The previous December, he had come to Cleveland in another weird Lane deal — Lane had traded Minnie Minoso back to Chicago in a sprawling 11-player deal that did not seem to be about anything in particular. Cash was one of the anonymous players in the deal, a guy both teams saw as a utility player at best. It’s not entirely clear why those two teams could not see Cash’s potential, but Detroit general manager Rick Ferrell certainly did. When Lane called him, Ferrell said, he was so shocked that he assumed the Indians were offering “cold cash,” not “Norm Cash” in a trade. When he realized it was Norm, he jumped at the deal.

In his first year with Detroit, Cash hit .286/.401/.501 with 18 home runs. The next year, he had what many consider to be one of the great fluke years in baseball history — hit hit .361/.487/.662 with 41 homers, 132 RBIs, a league leading 193 hits and 9.2 WAR.

It WAS fluky — Cash later admitted he had corked his bat that year — but he had a very, very good career in Detroit, hitting 30 or more homers four other times and creating more than 1,200 runs in a very low-scoring environment.

Cleveland, meanwhile, received Steve Demeter, who got five at-bats for the Indians. He did not get a hit in any of them. He did hit 272 career homers in Rochester. In Cleveland, they will always call it The Curse of Rocky Colavito, but the Cash trade was even worse.

* * *

9. February 25, 1972: Cardinals trade Steve Carlton to Philadelphia for Rick Wise.

Difference: 57 WAR.

So in early 1972, Carlton and Wise were both unhappy and unsigned when the two general managers got the bright idea of swapping problems. It did not seem unreasonable at the time. Carlton and Wise were about the same age (Carlton is nine months older) and they’d had somewhat comparable success:

Wise: 178 starts, 75-76, 3.60 ERA, 3.09 FIP, 717 Ks, 327 walks.

Carlton: 172 starts, 77-62, 3.10 ERA, 3.02 FIP, 951 Ks, 449 walks.

Wise felt like the differences in the numbers between him and Carlton were an illusion: “I’ve been tagged a .500 pitcher,” he said, “but every year our team managed to end up 30-40 games under .500, so I don’t think that’s a true evaluation or is indicative or how I can pitch. Although my record hasn’t been as impressive as his the last couple of years, I think I’m the same caliber pitcher he is.”

Many people agreed with him. In Philadelphia, one columnist wrote that the deal — in part because Wise was also a terrific hitter who banged six home runs the year before — made the Phillies come out second-best.

Of course, they were all wrong. Carlton went on to have one of the greatest pitching seasons in baseball history for Philadelphia in 1972, and he proved the stubborn and indomitable ace of a Phillies team that won a World Series and contended throughout. He won four Cy Young Awards. Wise pitched fairly well for a couple of years in St. Louis and was traded to Boston for Reggie Smith.

* * *

8. March 30, 1992: White Sox trade Sammy Sosa to the Cubs for George Bell.

Difference: 59 WAR.

General managers used to bow at the altar of RBIs. It’s possible that some still do — you will hear some talk about needing “run producers” — but it used to be a plague. Why in the world would a baseball team trade a promising 23-year-old outfielder for a 32-year-old George Bell? Well, the answer is in the RBIs. In Bell’s first year with the White Sox, he hit 25 homers and drove in 112 RBIs.

True, he also had a .294 on-base percentage, a .418 slugging percentage and was disastrous in the outfield. True, in context, Bell had a dreadful season even with those RBIs. But, hey, the White Sox wanted a run producer. And they got one.

Of course, they did not envision Sosa bulking up and becoming the only hitter in baseball history to slam 60-plus homers three times — even now, that’s hard to imagine — but a doddering George Bell? Really? Just for the RBIs?

* * *

7. August 12, 1987. Tigers trade John Smoltz to the Braves for Doyle Alexander.

Difference: 61 WAR.

This is one of those “you had to be there” trades. The day before Doyle Alexander made his first start for Detroit, the Tigers were in second place, a game and a half behind the Blue Jays. Their rotation was a mishmash of veterans and their bullpen was in shambles, but their lineup was powerful and leading the league in runs. It was a lot like the Toronto Blue Jays this year. The Tigers just needed a pitcher to bring everything together. Doyle Alexander turned out to be the man for the moment.

He made 11 starts in the last six weeks of the season. The Tigers won all 11. During the stretch, Alexander only gave up three runs or more three times, and he never gave up more than four — every time out he gave that good offense a chance to win. And they won every time.

It’s not often that one person can make a difference in a pennant race, but consider this: Over those final 49 games, the Tigers went 21-17 in the games that Alexander DID NOT start . They, of course, went 11-0 in the games that he did start. They won the East by two games. So, you would have to say, that the Tigers got EXACTLY what they wanted out of that deal.

Well, OK, not exactly what they wanted. It turned out that Alexander was an absolute fiasco in the championship series — he started twice against the Twins, gave up six runs (and two Gary Gaetti bombs) in the first game, then came back in the decisive game and got pulled in the second inning after giving up six hits and four runs. The fates giveth and the fates taketh away.

And when it all ended, the smoke cleared and … yep, the Tigers had given up future Hall of Fame John Smoltz. Was it worth it? This is a viable question because the Kansas City Royals just gave up three prospects — one of them talented lefty Brandon Finnegan — to Cincinnati for Johnny Cueto in the stretch run. You can say: Well, Finnegan isn’t going to the Hall of Fame. But at the time of the Alexander deal, John Smoltz was a no-control Class AA pitcher with a 5.68 ERA.

Is it worth the deal? I think the Tigers — and the Royals — make such deals with their eyes open. You don’t get many chances to take a hard run at the World Series. If the Royals win the World Series, I suspect they will determine it was worth the deal no matter what Finnegan and the others do. If they flop in the playoffs the way the Tigers did, well, that’s a whole other story.

* * *

6. April 9, 1916: Red Sox trade Tris Speaker to the Indians for Sad Sam Jones and Fred Thomas.

Difference: 63 WAR.

The main piece of this deal was the $55,000 that Cleveland sent over in the deal. This was a precursor to the Ruth sale a couple of years later.

It was made almost exactly 100 years ago, but if you listen to the Red Sox manager Bill Carrigan, I imagine you hear echoes of today:

“It’s a matter of business,” Carrigan said. “And anyone who figures baseball is not a business does not know the game. Speaker has done and all that’s left for us is to keep our heads up and to do the best we can.”

The Red Sox did OK without Speaker, winning 90-plus games the next two years and winning the World Series in 1918. Well hey, you can win a lot of games when Babe Ruth is dominating as a pitcher AND leading the league in home runs.

Speaker was fantastic in Cleveland, but it wasn’t until 1920 that the Indians finally won a championship.

My favorite quote from this trade came from a somewhat obscure outfielder name Clarence Walker, who people kept calling Tillie (sometime spelled “Tilly”). Walker had become a minor celebrity when he showed up in 1914, hit well, and displayed an outfield arm that many would call the greatest they ever saw. He then went through the rigors of Deadball baseball, getting released, getting cheated and so on. He ended up in Kansas City. He wasn’t crazy about that. “If they had been a major league in Hades,” he said, “I would have jumped before I went to Kansas City.”

Anyway, Walker turned out to be the guy who “replaced” Speaker in Boston. On the day after the trade, there was a headline in the Boston Daily Globe: “Walker Will Do His Best.” The subhead: “Can’t Fill Speaker’s Shoes, He Says.”

“I am tickled to deal to come to Boston,” Walker said. “But please make it plain to Boston fans that I am do not expect to fill Speaker’s shoes. I am not so good as Speaker.”

* * *

5. January 27, 1982: Phillies trade Ryne Sandberg and Larry Bowa to the Cubs for Ivan DeJesus.

Difference: 66 WAR

While the Cubs are famous for being, well, the Cubs, in truth they have been on the winning side of some of baseball’s most spectacularly unbalanced deals. As mentioned, they got Fergie Jenkins in a steal and they got Sammy Sosa in another. They got Derrek Lee for Hee-Seop Choi and pilfered Aramis Ramirez from Pittsburgh for Jose Hernandez and Bobby Hill.

The Sandberg deal, though, was something else, a Philadelphia miscalculation of epic proportions. Sandberg had shown promise in the minor leagues; he flashed a bit of power with quite a bit of speed. He was a somewhat erratic shortstop, but he was so athletic that when the Phillies moved him to second base he seemed at ease. The Phillies had 31-year-old Manny Trillio there at second; it’s hard to see just how they expected that to last.

But one thing general managers can do — especially, it seems, in Philadelphia — is believe that the present will last forever. When the Phillies traded Sandberg, they said (based on the way Philadelphia writers wrote about the deal) that he would likely never become more than a utility infielder.

Cubs fans apparently hated this deal at first. They liked DeJesus and believed that giving him to the hated Phillies was like giving Philadelphia another pennant. Looking back, it’s hard to find anyone who had anything good to say about Sandberg. Even the Chicago Daily Herald, who halfheartedly defended the deal, admitted that Sandberg might “never have a prime.”

It’s hard to imagine how a 22-year-old middle infielder with power and speed could be so lightly regarded. If that exact trade as made in 2015, ESPN’s Keith Law and others would be SAVAGING the Phillies for the move. But baseball was a little bit different then.

* * *

4. November 29, 1971: Astros trade Joe Morgan, Jack Billingham, Cesar Geronimo, Ed Armbrister and Denis Menke to Reds for Tommy Helms and Lee May.

Difference: 66 WAR

Here was another trade where the winning team’s fans were initially disgusted. Reds fans were furious that general manager Bob Howsam had traded away Lee May, who led the 1971 Reds in home runs (39) and RBIs (98). The trade made absolutely no sense to most Cincinnati fans, especially because the key player returning was a 27-year-old second baseman who hit .256, .268 and .236 the previous three seasons.

People didn’t know just how good a player Joe Morgan already was, and they sure as heck didn’t know that he was about to emerge as the best player in the game. There were numerous things obscuring Morgan’s genius for the game.

— He played in a terrible hitters park, which sapped his power and deflated his batting average by probably 20 to 30 points. In 1971, for instance:

Home: .220/.332/.354 with four homers, 18 RBIs, 34 runs and 16 stolen bases.

Road: .286/.366/.451 with 9 homers, 38 RBIs, 53 runs and 24 stolen bases.

So if you doubled his road numbers, you had a second baseman hitting .286 with 18 homers, stealing 48 bases, driving in 76 runs and scoring 106.

In 1972, Morgan hit .292 with 16 homers, stole 56 bases, drove in 73 runs and scored a league-leading 122 runs.

— He walked a ton, and few appreciated the value of walks then.

— He was a proud and deeply motivated player who had to deal with a lot of incompetence and racial tension with the Astros.

Morgan DID improve in Cincinnati. He always credited Pete Rose for teaching him how to become a winning ballplayer. But, in all the important ways, Joe Morgan already WAS a winning ballplayer at the time of the trade. This was something Bob Howsam saw and the Astros and many fans missed.

* * *

3. July 18, 1939: Boston trades Pee Wee Reese to Brooklyn for Red Evans, Art Parks and $35,000.

Difference: 66 WAR

We talked about how the Cubs, despite their reputation, have actually been on the winning end of some of the most uneven deals in baseball history. The bizarro version of that is the Red Sox, who have made many of the worst trades ever. They sold Babe Ruth, of course. They traded away Tris Speaker. They traded away the young Curt Schilling. They also have the No. 2 worst trade ever, which is coming up.

And they traded away the young Pee Wee Reese. The Red Sox liked Reese a lot; the legend they bought the Louisville club just to get him probably isn’t entirely true, but they certainly knew that Reese was a good young player. So why did they trade him? Well, that answer is not entirely clear, but it seems to come down to Red Sox manager and shortstop Joe Cronin and Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey.

Cronin had been baseball’s best shortstop in the early 1930s, and in 1938 at age 31 he was healthy again and he had a renaissance season, hitting .325, walking 91 times, leading the league with 51 doubles and finishing seventh in the MVP balloting. Cronin was convinced that he had at least five more good years left (he did have three good years left) and because he was the manager as well as shortstop, his views were taken seriously. He also had his doubts about Reese; Cronin believed him too small to be an effective every day player.

Cronin had Yawkey’s ear and so Reese was traded for irrelevant minor leaguers and some cash.

“Reese is a most promising prospect and should develop into a major league star with another year or two of experience,” Dodgers president Larry McPhail was quoted saying after the trade was made.  Reese stepped in a dazzling defensive shortstop right away though his bat did not come around until after he got back from World War II. By then, to be fair, the Red Sox had Johnny Pesky at shortstop, and he was a fine player, though not quite Pee Wee Reese.

* * *

2. August 30, 1990: Red Sox trade Jeff Bagwell to Astros for Larry Andersen.

Difference: 78 WAR.

Of all the trades on this list, the one that makes the least sense to me is the Bagwell for Andersen deal. I just cannot quite figure how the Red Sox would take a gifted right-handed hitter BORN in Boston, RAISED in New England, and trade him for a 37-year-old reliever heading to his sixth team. I doubt there is anything that could ever explain this one well enough.

“Larry is a veteran major-league reliever who should bolster our bullpen for the stretch run,” Red Sox GM Lou Gorman said at the time. “Although the price was high, we are happy to have acquired a pitcher with postseason experience.”

Inexplicable. Utterly inexplicable. Sure, there has been some conjecture that Boston was worried that Bagwell did not have a position. He was playing third at the time, and the Red Sox did not think he could stick there (the Red Sox also seemed to think Tim Naehring was a better third base prospect).

Gorman has said and written that Bagwell’s path to first base was blocked by Mo Vaughn, but this seems a blurry retrospective. Vaughn and Bagwell are almost the same age and Bagwell was clearly more advanced than Vaughn. He won the 1991 Rookie of the Year while Vaughn spent much of that season (and the next) in Class AAA.

There also has been some conjecture that Boston worried that Bagwell’s power would never come around. But this too is silly; he was leading the Eastern League in hitting when the trade was made, he was hitting a lot of doubles, and he was only 22. He hit 15 homers in his rookie year, despite playing half his games in the Astrodome, and 18 the next, 20 the next, then 39 in the 1994 strike season. No scout worth hiring could have missed his power potential.

The answer to the Bagwell conundrum, frankly, is incompetence on a sort of grand scale. It happens. People have blind spots. Opinions congeal with the force of repetition. Somewhere along the way, the Red Sox decided that Bagwell just could not play — and the team fell for the “We really need a veteran reliever for the postseason” nonsense.

Even based on that absurd line of reasoning, the deal was a failure. Andersen appeared in three games in the ALCS. In Game 1, he came in with a 1-0 lead, walked the leadoff hitter, gave up a single and the sac fly that tied the game. In the next inning, he gave up a leadoff single in what turned out to be the winning run. In Game 2, he came into a game with his team down by a run and pitched a bumpy but scoreless inning.  In Game 4, the last game, he came in with his team trailing 3-0 and pitched another bumpy but scoreless inning.

Then he left for free agency.

For that, the Red Sox gave up one of the best first basemen in the history of the game, and probably the greatest player ever born in Boston. So, so weird.

* * *

1. December 15, 1900: Cincinnati Reds trade Christy Mathewson to the Giants for Amos Rusie.

Difference: 95 WAR.

Here is a story that appeared in the Sports and Sportsmen section of the Lowell Sun on Dec. 27, 1900, just when the legendary new York Giants pitcher Amos Rusie was deciding whether or not to accept the trade to Cincinnati. It is filled with all the misogyny and absurdity of the time:

Amos Rusie, one of the best baseball pitchers that ever curved a ball over the plate, is writing a book these days on the great national game. He is living in seclusion in a suburb of Muncie, Ind., and has given up bad habits at the request of his wife. It is said Mrs. Rusie made this a condition before remarrying Amos after their divorce last spring.

It was said that Mrs. Rusie exacted a promise from Amos that he would never again visit New York City and particularly not the neighborhood of One Hundred and Twenty-fifth street. He also was required to promise that he would never again play baseball except as recreation with his fellow townsmen of Muncie and environs.

All this Rusie agreed to, and also in future to avoid bad whisky, indulgence in which had frequently caused the big pitcher to imagine his wife was a League ball.  These hallucinations are said to have led Amos to attempt to not only hurl Mrs. Rusie over the home plate, but also convert her into an outshoot, with a second story window as the objective point.

But now all this is changed. Although nobody in New York ever suspected Rusie of possessing literary ability, he is said to have buried himself in obscurity for the purpose of writing a book of his knowledge of baseball and relating his reminiscences of the game. Rusie has been offered many opportunities to write about the game and the players, but according to the report, “he desires to tell all he knows that is interesting within the covers of his own book.

Well, yeah, that’s, um, interesting.Rusie really was a larger than life figure in 1900, even though he had not pitched for two years. They called him the Hoosier Thunderbolt. And that year, the Reds came up with a scheme to get Rusie to pitch for them. The Giants had signed Christy Mathewson just out of college, and he had struggled at first so they shipped him off to get some seasoning. But by doing so, they exposed him to the Rule 5 draft. This gave the Reds a chance of a lifetime — they plopped down the $100 fee and drafted him. It could have been the greatest $100 deal in baseball history. Mathewson is one of a handful of pitchers in the discussion for greatest ever.

But, all along, it was just a ploy: Apparently the Reds had no interest in spending the money necessary to sign Mathewson. Instead, they used Mathewson in a trade for the rights to Amos Rusie. They were dreaming of giant crowds.

Rusie did try to pitch for the Reds — he pitched three games. It was no good. He allowed 43 hits and 25 runs in 22 innings. He then disappeared into retirement with his wife, who stayed with him until his death. Rusie was a titan of the game in the nineteenth century, but in the end he was remembered — if at all — as the footnote who was traded for Christy Mathewson. Thirty-five years after he died, Rusie was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

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    Once more, with feeling

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

    How does it FEEL, Jimmie?

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

    How does it FEEL, Jimmie?

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

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

    “Wonderful,” he says.

    “Surreal,” he says.

    “Incredible,” he says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

    * * *

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

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

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

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

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

    * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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    Johnson begins to turn red, “I mean …”

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

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

    Earnhardt doesn’t say a word.

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

    * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    And, inside the car, Johnson fell asleep

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

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

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

    * * *

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

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

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

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

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

    Did he?

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

    * * *

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

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

    “No sir.”

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

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

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

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

    The fourth wheel

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

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

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

    1. Junior Johnson, 50 wins

    2. Mark Martin, 40 wins

    3. Fireball Roberts, 33 wins

    4. Denny Hamlin, 29 wins

    5. Carl Edwards, 28 wins

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

    Watch: NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship (Sunday at 1:30 p.m. ET on NBC, NBCSports.com 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, NBCSports.com 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, NBCSports.com 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, NBCSports.com 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, NBCSports.com 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?