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NASCAR’s 2015 Chase Theme: Stealing

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Someone better figure out where to hide the Sprint Cup championship trophy. The second year of NASCAR’s new Chase continues to be characterized by its own type of Ponzi scheme: first-degree theft.

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Left and right, the last three weeks have been littered with people stealing lines on a racing resume from somebody else. Talladega? New green-white-checkered finish rules collided with a bizarre finish to steal a victory out of the hands of Dale Earnhardt Jr. A chance at the title was taken along with it, the same opportunity Kevin Harvick earned when he stole a Chase ticket into the next round by causing a caution courtesy of a hard-right turn into Trevor Bayne.

Next there was Martinsville, which saw Matt Kenseth stealing Joey Logano’s shot at the championship by taking a shot straight into his left-side door. A two-race suspension and a day’s worth of shenanigans ensued (none of which appear to be calming down anytime soon). Their little squabble caused Jeff Gordon to steal victory from the jaws of defeat, rescuing an otherwise winless season and earning himself a bid at a fifth championship during a year where racking up even five top-5 finishes has been a struggle.

They say these trends come in threes, which is why it’s no surprise Texas followed suit. Sunday’s race was a one-man affair, Brad Keselowski dominating to the tune of 312 out of 334 laps led. But a late debris caution bunched up the field, breathing new life into rivals and giving Jimmie Johnson a fighting chance at a sweep. Both drivers put on an exceptional show, dashing all over the racetrack before Johnson shocked the crowd, stuck his Chevy out in front and led the final six laps of a race he stole right under Keselowski’s nose.

It’s only fitting Johnson finished this three-race chapter off, the No. 48 team winning races in unconventional ways. The six-time champ has led the fewest laps of any season in his 14-year career, is on track for his worst points finish and second straight outside the top 10. Yet somehow, looking at the stats sheet he has five victories, one short of the series lead (Logano) and has done so on the strength of late-race surges.

Take Kansas in the spring. Johnson took a back seat to Harvick until pit strategy late snuck him out front. Ditto for Dover, a place where Johnson was surprisingly behind the curve in May until a final restart shot him by Harvick. Atlanta? Yet a third duel where Johnson outlasted Harvick and Kenseth over the final portion of the race. Only at Texas this spring was J.J. dominant throughout, leading a race-high 128 laps (a total blown away by Keselowski Sunday).

Then again, Johnson might say his bid for this year’s title was stolen by a $5 part breaking at Dover. The resulting rear end repair left him 41st, knocked out of the Chase after just the first round and left to ponder what might have been. Sunday gave him a chance to commit the crime and not be the victim.

By the way, who was the first person to greet Johnson in Victory Lane? Teammate Gordon, who some might say had his own title bid stolen by Keselowski back in 2014.

Perhaps karma does come back around after all. Let’s just hope, especially with the aggression we’ve seen these past few weeks no one winds up arrested by Homestead.

Through the gears we go….

FIRST GEAR: As the Keselowski Crumbles

Texas was Keselowski’s race to lose, a place among the final four at Homestead ready and waiting for him. Instead, the Chaser fell short, handling the runner-up result with dignity but facing the reality of another failed title attempt. Barring a miracle at Phoenix, a track where neither he nor teammate Joey Logano has won, Team Penske will be shut out of the final four at Homestead a second straight year.

“I can certainly feel for Brad,” said rival Kyle Busch. “That’s heartbreaking. To be that fast, to lead that many laps, to get beat that late in the game like that, I know the pain.”

“Clearly, Brad had a lot on the line,” added Johnson. “Thankful he ran as hard and as clean as he did.”

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Keselowski, optimistic after the race, has nothing to be ashamed of; the past two seasons he and Logano have combined for 18 victories. But the big prize has continued to elude them, their impressive effort as a two-car team falling short since Logano came on board in 2013. Keselowski’s title in 2012 continues to be the only Cup title owner Roger Penske has won despite 88 victories since rejoining the sport full-time in 1991.

SECOND GEAR: Harvick’s Make-or-Break Moment Ahead

What hasn’t happened to Kevin Harvick during this Chase? A broken shifter combined with two flat tires to make life difficult Sunday for the reigning champ. Lesser drivers would have wrecked; lesser teams would have been unable to stick together through several slow stops on pit road. Yet despite a day of mayhem, once again the reigning champ found himself inside the top 3 at race’s end (third). It’s the 18th podium effort for Harvick this season and one that now has him on the precipice of a second final four appearance.

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“I guess those are character-building moments,” he said. “But we’ve managed to survive and advance and that’s what we’ve got to do next week.”

“Survive and advance” is right as next week will be a test in the face of NASCAR CEO Brian France’s push to discipline Kenseth. After that intentional Martinsville wreck we head to Phoenix, a track where Harvick dominates and is the heavy favorite to win once again. However, much of the NASCAR garage remains incensed over the Talladega affair and several drivers want to prevent Harvick from being title-eligible come Homestead.

Will someone step outside the lines and dump the No. 4 car if it’s in contention to win? That’s probably the only obstacle standing in Harvick’s way of more success in the desert and a shot at defending his title.

THIRD GEAR: Three Unexpected Faces Round Out Chase Race

Keselowski’s loss left the Chase well-defined. Both he and Logano need to win Phoenix to advance, as does Kurt Busch, who didn’t even race there in the spring (he was under suspension). None of that trio is likely to do so which leaves four drivers fighting for three spots (Jeff Gordon is already in after clinching his spot at Martinsville).

The group besides Harvick is a rather unlikely list of candidates. You have Carl Edwards, virtually invisible with his new team until winning Charlotte in May. No one would have expected after his struggles the first half of the season the No. 19 team would ever make it this far. Then there’s Martin Truex Jr., driving for single-car Furniture Row Racing, who’s put together a Cinderella season. It’s the first time the No. 78 team has been in title contention this late; it’s just the third time ever Truex has made his way inside the Chase. Both of them looked better off divorcing after a miserable 2014 season but what’s transpired instead is a miraculous turnaround.

The biggest surprise, though is Kyle Busch, who didn’t even step into a Cup car for a points race this season until May. A devastating leg injury sidelined him at Daytona and could have sidetracked his title bid until NASCAR green-lighted an exception to their “start every race” rule to qualify. A frantic four wins in five races ensured, clawing Busch into title eligibility and he’s ridden this wave high enough to change his ugly Chase past. Once one of the most temperamental drivers, Busch has put himself in final four contention despite being winless throughout the postseason. Could 30 years old be the year of maturity, one where the new dad finally gets over the hump?

FOURTH GEAR: Suspension Looms Over Texas

Yes, Texas had its moments, tire problems early affecting several drivers and a fantastic ending between Johnson and Keselowski. Still, the spectre of the Kenseth incident the week before overshadowed Sunday’s proceedings. Signs of “#FreeMatt” could be found all over the grandstands and there was an outpouring of support for replacement rookie Erik Jones, an impressive talent who put together a respectable 12th-place finish in the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 20 Toyota.

But it was Kenseth stealing the show, saying early in the weekend he had “no regrets” and “absolutely would not” change the way he races. Then, there was Sunday’s gem of a Tweet after Johnson and Keselowski battled cleanly for the win, a situation where the No. 2 car could have taken out the No. 48 to earn its spot in Homestead.

It was a nicely couched shot at both rival Logano, whose wreck caused the suspension, and NASCAR CEO Brian France. One might say it was a 140-character “quintessential” performance…

OVERDRIVE

Boy, has Kyle Larson suffered through a sophomore slump-type of year. The second-year Cup driver was running top 5 Sunday before a flat tire ruined his race. The day before? He was leading the XFINITY Series event before a similar problem led to him wrecking out. The much-hyped “future of the sport” now will spend the last two races battling to simply finish the year 20th in points... Some nice runs were had by non-Chasers like Austin Dillon (11th) and Brian Scott (14th). Both drive Richard Childress Racing chassis as that organization looks to build momentum for 2016... Danica Patrick had a solid weekend, qualifying 11th and running a clean, quiet race. Her 16th-place result one week after getting fined for contact with David Gilliland marked the best result for the No. 10 team since early August...  Gordon received two Shetland ponies from Texas Motor Speedway, perhaps the most bizarre gift yet in his 2015 retirement tour.

— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at tom.bowles@frontstretch.com or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.

(Photos by ASP Inc.)