Less than two weeks ago, NASCAR Executive Vice President Steve O’Donnell appeared to lay down the law in the aftermath of a post-race skirmish between Kyle Busch and Joey Logano at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
O’Donnell, the sport’s chief spokesman in times of strife and upheaval, warning that the sanctioning body would not tolerate any on-track retaliation and would react strongly to instances of drivers using their car as weapons.
Just days later, the sanctioning body failed to act when Austin Dillon did exactly that, squeezing Cole Custer’s car into the outside wall under caution at Phoenix Raceway after Custer inadvertently wrecked Dillon late in Saturday’s NASCAR Xfinity Series race.
NASCAR parked Dillon for the remainder of the event – a token penalty, since his car was already too damaged to continue – then declined to assess any further sanctions or penalties.
“Don’t do it again,” was the official response. “Or else.”
That mixed message leaves drivers and fans to wonder exactly what is – and isn’t – allowed these days, especially in the aftermath of a similar no-call for the pit road imbroglio between Busch, Logano and their respective crews a week earlier.
"Every situation is different" said O’Donnell last week, insisting that drivers know where the line lies between acceptable behavior and actionable offense.
Unfortunately, the drivers say they don’t.
|Dillon wrecked Custer under caution|
“I don't know that it gives us an answer of what we can or can't do,” said Ryan Newman, Dillon’s teammate at Richard Childress Racing. “You have to do what's best, and what's best is not always the same in everybody's eyes. Being aggressive -- whether it's with your race car or your hands -- doesn't always lead to the answer. But it sometimes gets your point across, and sometimes that's what's needed.”
Dale Earnhardt, Jr., also weighed-in on NASCAR’s response, saying, “It's not about trying to teach (Dillon) a lesson. It's really (about) what we are trying to tell everyone else, all the other drivers.
NASCAR has fined drivers for intentionally damaging competitors’ cars -- under green or under caution – in the past. They have also declined to do so.
|O'Donnell: "No two incidents are alike."|
It’s all a matter of degree. And in the words of William Shakespeare, “There’s the rub.”
As is often the case, NASCAR finds itself in an untenable position. The sanctioning body is expected to rule consistently on a series of incidents – both on and off the race track – that vary wildly in both severity and circumstance. Fists are different than fenders, and high-speed takeouts are different than harmless bouts of post-race fender rubbing.
No two incidents are alike, and no written rule can cover the myriad ways that drivers express displeasure with each other.
“I don't particularly envy NASCAR's position,” said former Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion Brad Keselowski last week. "There is something to be said for our responsibility in this sport to be role models, and I'm as guilty as anyone else of not doing the best job of that, sometimes.
"We're all trying to ask ourselves… 'What's too much emotion?' I'm not sure anyone has really got a great answer to that.”
Clearly, NASCAR cannot allow its garage area to degenerate into a 700-horsepower version of the OK Corral, with drivers and team members taking matters into their own hands with impunity. They also cannot afford to take the emotion out of the sport, however, turning speedways into Safe Zones where conflict and disagreement are strictly forbidden.
Somewhere in the middle lies a line between acceptable and unacceptable. Unfortunately, that line isn’t always straight.
"I got punched in the face and I still race hard," said Keselowski, harkening back to a 2014 dustup with Jeff Gordon that left him battered, bruised and unpenalized. "Everybody has got their own way of looking at it."
“I really don't know what to do,” he smiled. “I haven't gotten my UFC license yet.”