FONTANA, Calif. — Austin Dillon tried to joke a little about what he would do if he found himself feeling the anger he felt last Saturday.
What he won’t do is drive into another car under caution, as he did in squeezing Cole Custer into the wall at fairly slow speed a week ago at Phoenix Raceway.
NASCAR technically parked Dillon for the rest of that race, although Dillon’s car already had enough damage that he wasn’t going to continue. NASCAR took no additional action but told Dillon that he would face a stiff penalty, likely a suspension, if he did it again.
If running into a car under caution is not an option, Dillon needs to find another way to release those emotions.
“I haven’t gotten my UFC license yet,” Dillon said. “If we tied it in together, it would be pretty interesting. There is a very fine line.”
The question, as it often is after these circumstances, is whether that fine line is straight, slanted or squiggly. NASCAR didn’t fine Kyle Busch for trying to throw a punch at Joey Logano after Las Vegas, and with no fine to Dillon, things could be considered open game in the NASCAR garage. NASCAR declined comment beyond the standard “every situation is different” line it uses whenever asked to compare two instances, and that drivers know the line.
“I don’t think anybody wants to put making that judgment call in NASCAR’s hands, but unfortunately, with our sport, you have frustrations and therefore temptations,” said Dillon’s RCR teammate Ryan Newman. “You have to do what’s best. And what’s best is not always the same in everybody’s eyes, because being aggressive, whether it’s with your race car or your right hands, doesn’t always lead to the answer, but it sometimes gets your point across, and sometimes that’s what’s needed.
“So, I don’t know that it gives us an answer of what we can or can’t do, but I think at some points we’ll eventually find a limit of what you so-to-speak can get away with.”
NASCAR has fined — and suspended — drivers for retaliation in the past. They have issued fines for fights. Without a clear definition or description by NASCAR of how it comes to a decision on a penalty, it has opened itself up to questions of how it will handle the next situation. The benefit for NASCAR is that it doesn’t back itself into a corner — it can only look hypocritical by perceptions rather than through words.
“This is a sport of emotion, and I guess we’re all trying to ask ourselves or answer at least, ‘What’s too much emotion?’ ” said Team Penske’s Brad Keselowski. “I’m not sure anyone has really got a great answer to that. I don’t particularly envy NASCAR’s position.
“But I do believe that 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. But I think that probably should weigh into that decision.”
Dillon said the quandary is he sees worse stuff at a weekly short track, but he knows that with the spotlight on NASCAR, it has to make judgment calls as a professional sport.
“There was a judgment call there made [in my situation],” Dillon said. “If a driver has the intestinal fortitude to take on that, I don’t think they would want to see what would probably happen.
“Mine was a little bit different situation than what we’ve seen in the past [as far as severity]. … I think every driver knows where the line is, and when they cross it, they know what’s coming afterwards. This one, leading up to it, I figured there possibly could be a fine or possibly I could not have a fine.”
If NASCAR followed precedent with Busch, Dillon could have gone out and decked Custer without a fine. But NASCAR Executive Vice President Steve O’Donnell said last week that NASCAR hadn’t just opened up the door for drivers to whale on each other after a race without fear of punishment.
“Then I’m hitting someone that is a rookie in our sport that’s younger than me? How does that look?” Dillon said. “There’s going to be a wrong in every kind of way. So I need to handle it my way, probably, and not give a crap about what others think, truthfully.
“I have morals of my own. So I try to stick by a moral code that my family has brought me up by. I know I’ve learned my lessons. Everybody makes mistakes and NASCAR did a good job being a fatherlike figure to me in this situation. They expected more out of me. For me to kind of let them down, I need to handle the situation differently.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr. suggested that Dillon should have to do some appearances at tracks — that the driver gets the message best when his time is impacted. He believes that NASCAR dropped the ball a little bit with Dillon because he wonders whether young drivers see what NASCAR drivers do and then base their codes on their heroes.
“Austin knows right from wrong,” Earnhardt said. “It’s not about trying to teach him a lesson. It’s really what are we trying to tell everyone else, all the other drivers?
“I know NASCAR takes these guys into the haulers, and they do have these conversations with them, and they do tell them what they expect in the future, but no one else is privy to that conversation. Not that I need to be in that conversation, but that is not sending the message to anyone because we don’t know what the message is, right?”
Just as drivers are unsure of the message, they also try to deliver messages of their own.
“There’s all this intimidation B.S. that goes on all the time that has always been peculiar to me, but they create some interesting stories, and I can understand why people are excited and get interested in it,” Keselowski said.
“At the end of the day, I kind of see it for what it is — it’s a bullying tactic.”
Does it work? Will a driver race differently after getting decked?
“I guess you could say I got punched in the face and I still race hard,” Keselowski said. “Everybody has got their own way of looking at it.”
O’Donnell said last week that NASCAR didn’t want drivers to use their cars as weapons. Dillon didn’t hear that comment and was wondering why social media was comparing him to using his car as a weapon. He wasn’t sure that wording was the best.
“When I got wrecked, was his car a weapon before that?” Dillon said. “NASCAR has done a good job, and safety is key, so I just hope a different word is brought out of that.
“If we are all driving weapons, going 200 miles an hour? … A weapon is something that can take something out.”
Despite the NASCAR-speak, Dillon said he still thinks he knows the line.
And then the next moment, he says:
“There’s got to be a way to let someone know that you care and express it the right way,” Dillon said. “I guess the best way to do it is I would have to ask every Twitter fan that has had a problem with what I did the proper way I should retaliate. Or I should pray about it and hope something happens to him.
“So, for me, I really don’t know what to do, truthfully.”