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Bad blood boils as NASCAR’s Chase playoffs begin

Tensions are again escalating between championship contenders Brad Keselowski and Matt Kenseth.

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series New Hampshire 301 Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images

What is the NASCAR equivalent of kids returning to school or leaves changing colors to mark the seasonal transition from summer to fall? Judging by recent history, it’s the increasing animosity between Team Penske’s Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano and rival Matt Kenseth of Joe Gibbs Racing.

Friction that came to forefront during Saturday night’s rough and tumble at Richmond International Raceway to close out the Sprint Cup Series regular season.

The latest flash point unfolded when Keselowski missed a shift on a restart with 64 laps remaining, then charged full steam into Turn 1 to prevent losing a string of positions. But Keselowski overdrove his corner entry, drifted up the track and into a trailing Kenseth, who then cut a tire and crashed in Turn 3.

Afterward, Kenseth pointed the finger squarely at Keselowski.

“I'm sure he'll send a tweet out or go on a TV show and explain how it wasn't his fault," Kenseth said. "But he knows better than that. He knows his angle was bad and he just drove way up in the corner because he made a mistake and he was trying to make up for it and had no respect for anybody on the outside lane. Unfortunately, we had a wrecked car because of it.”

To his credit, Keselowski admitted his mistake postrace, accepting full responsibility for ending Kenseth’s night prematurely.

“I can understand why he's upset,” Keselowski said. “He deserves to be upset. I made a mistake, and it was kind of crappy for everyone. Hopefully, he'll accept the apology.”

Apologies are well and good, except the likelihood of Kenseth absolving Keselowski are nil considering recent events that have transpired in each of the past two editions of the Chase for the Sprint Cup -- the time of the year when the stakes are significantly amplified.

In 2014, Keselowski’s rough driving prompted the usually mild-mannered Kenseth to tackle him in the garage following the October race at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Last year, Kenseth entered into a bitter feud with Logano, which culminated with Kenseth intentionally wrecking the race-leading Logano at Martinsville Speedway. Kenseth’s breaking point was apparently brought about after Keselowski caused an accident earlier in the same race that heavily damaged his car.

Had Logano won that afternoon, he would’ve automatically advanced to the championship round. For his deliberate act of revenge, Kenseth earned an unprecedented two-race suspension.

And so as this year’s Chase is set to begin Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway, the seeds are sown for what appears to be a third straight playoff skirmish between the duo of Keselowski and Logano vs. Kenseth. Tensions heightened because each possesses realistic title hopes.

Such rancor, however, isn’t just limited to Keselowski, Logano and Kenseth. Vitriol and hard feelings are now commonplace in the Chase ever since NASCAR went to a multi-round, knockout playoff format three years ago where the pressure squeezes the 16-participants.

It’s why Kevin Harvick shoved good friend Jimmie Johnson in the driver’s lot last year at the conclusion of the Chicagoland race. It’s why Jeff Gordon was so enraged with Keselowski the year before at Texas Motor Speedway, it led to a pit road brawl between their teams.

With four drivers cut from the Chase every three weeks, one slip, one bobble can lead to elimination. And when misfortune occurs not because of something you did, but at the hands of a competitor, then the rage only intensifies.

“You just have to be selfish,” Harvick said. “You have to do what's best for your team, worry about the consequences when all the dust settles. You have to be narrow minded, not listen to anything, and do whatever it takes to figure out how to make the best performance on that particular day. Every point matters. This is a minute‑by‑minute battle.”

Harvick set a tone for what’s to come when, leading into Richmond, he tweeted a bull stampeding into a section of grandstands filled with spectators. The caption: “My mood for the next 11 weeks.”

That mindset has served Harvick well. Raw determination carried him to the 2014 title where he produced victories in consecutive must-win races, and finished a close second to Kyle Busch last year.

Coming off a regular season where he led the series in points, top fives, top 10s and average finish, Harvick is expected to again be a major player. And as evidenced by publicly lambasting his underperforming pit crew two weeks ago, the Stewart-Haas Racing driver demands the same commitment from his team.

“You just try to think of dotting every I and crossing every T because that's what it's all about,” Harvick said. “You have to get everything out of every person that touches everything on that car at another level to win this deal.

“What you are getting ready to step into the next 10 weeks is a lot of pressure.”