Between the fisticuffs on pit road, on-track contact and post-race inspection infractions the last two weeks, the reaction by fans and media members has run the gamut from hysteria to hypocrisy.
Many jeered when Kyle Busch walked up to Joey Logano and threw a phantom right cross, while others cheered as the No. 22 crew dragged Busch to the ground at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Austin Dillon waited for Cole Custer under caution and tried to park him alongside the backstretch wall at Phoenix International Raceway, albeit at a drastically reduced speed, and was promptly granted an invitation to discuss his feelings with in the NASCAR hauler.
Fan reaction on radio and social media was split about evenly between, “boys have at it,” and, “hang ‘em high.”
Days before, NASCAR Executive VP Steve O’Donnell said that NASCAR was not going to make a rule of ignoring retaliation by drivers or when said drivers used racecars as extensions of their fists being thrown. Following the no-call by NASCAR after the race, and through Tuesday afternoon, many fans were raising the red flag of inconsistency, accusing the sanctioning body of not being consistent with their handling of past instances and perhaps showing some favoritism toward a competitor who drives a rather popular car in the premier series that is his focus.
As Dillon did while driving up into Custer, let’s pump the brakes on any criminal indictment.
The whole racecar-as-a-weapon argument needs to be put in perspective and its proper context. Dumping a guy going into turn 1 at Pocono Raceway? Yes, that is using your car as a weapon. Blocking the progress of car next to the wall under caution and not near any safety vehicles or endangering other drivers? Cheap entertainment.
Matt Kenseth’s retaliation against Logano a couple of years ago at Martinsville Speedway was another example of a weaponized racecar, but – again – it’s at a track where the corner speeds were around 65 mph, not 165 mph. This wasn’t at a speed like Jeff Gordon and Clint Bowyer in 2012 at Phoenix either, which resulted in Bowyer going Balboa through the garage area as Gordon was taking on the entire Michael Waltrip Racing team. I remember back in 2007 when Kurt Busch and Tony Stewart got into it at Dover International Speedway with Busch slamming on his brakes sliding next to Stewart while he was in his pit stall. When a crewman had to hop out of the way, some were raving that Busch “could have killed somebody!”
Yeah, I guess. So could have the other 42 drivers making pit stops at the time. But they didn’t.
There is a bit of hypocrisy in all of this hand-wringing over the type of conflict you might witness over a hotly contested parking spot at the mall on Black Friday in a sport that was thrust into national prominence for a televised two-on-one fistfight almost 40 years ago. Scan any racing forum or thread of Facebook comments, call-in shows or even this site and you’ll see the common refrain from frustrated and the disenfranchised:
Racing isn’t what it used to be!
Everything is so PC and drivers can’t handle their business without getting fined!
Back in the day you’d get put in the wall or they’d duke it out in the pits!
OK, well… here you go. Are you not entertained?!
Back in the 1950s and ‘60s, a snubbie .38 was as common as a 9/16 wrench in any tool box at a racetrack, so let’s not freak out over a couple of millionaires scuffling at 20 mph. When Dillon made contact with Custer, he did just that: made contact with him. Custer’s nose was barely touching the wall. It wasn’t like he went NASCAR Thunder ’99 and started driving in the opposite direction and plowed head on into him.
For better or worse (mostly better), have-at-it-boys is back in style. Between stage racing, a little roughhousing and – gasp – enforcing rules (with consequences!), NASCAR has made greater strides in the first four races than it has in the last four years. No, we don’t need to install turnbuckles in the pits or reduce the top tier series in North America to the hillbilly hit parade notion that we’ve worked so hard to dispel. There is also still work to done in getting the cars to drive around each other better, but a strong start to the season is what was needed, and with four winners in four races plus other stories that abound, NASCAR has delivered nicely in these first few weeks the year.
Lest this be too much to endure, brace yourselves; Martinsville is next week. Somebody might even throw a water bottle at someone.