BRISTOL, Tenn. (AP) — There's an expectation from fans that a ticket to Bristol Motor Speedway will get them a seat to NASCAR's version of the Roman Colosseum.
They got one of those throwback, rock 'em, sock 'em races last August, when changes to the track surface forced drivers to get aggressive again and caused tempers to flare. Now, a month into a new Sprint Cup season, NASCAR could use another race like that.
Sunday's race will be the fourth for the new Gen-6 car, and the first this season on a short track. It could be the spark NASCAR needs at a time everyone seems to be holding their breath.
"Everybody is on egg shells. Drivers are on egg shells. I think the fans are on egg shells. The media is on egg shells. The sanctioning body is on egg shells," defending champion Brad Keselowski said. "You get the collective sense in this sport that everyone is feeling a lot of pressure and if we don't have a perfect week every week everybody just kind of shakes down in their boots. So I think, right now, every week is a big week in this sport."
This week, nobody knows what to expect at a track once beloved for its action-packed racing and drama it produced.
But a reconfigured racing surface in 2007 altered Bristol into two racing grooves, sometimes three, and drivers could race side-by-side around the tight bullring for the first time. Without a need to forcefully use the front bumper to navigate through traffic, the drivers thoroughly enjoyed the new Bristol.
Fans absolutely hated it, and the track that boasted 55 consecutive sellouts suddenly had swaths of open seats.
Track owner Bruton Smith had seen enough last March and ordered grinding to the top groove in an effort to tighten up the track and recreate the old Bristol racing. He got some of that in August, and the drama, too: Tony Stewart angrily threw his helmet at Matt Kenseth after contact between the two knocked Stewart out of the race.
Race winner Denny Hamlin thinks Sunday will be even better.
"The lower line has got more grip than I've ever felt here in the past," Hamlin said. "I think we're going to see one of the best races we've seen in a long time here because the low line does have a lot of grip, and we know everyone is going to start making their way higher just to make their car work, so it's going to be a good mix of both I believe."
It could be what's needed for NASCAR's new car that Hamlin put in the news with a mild critique two weeks ago that earned him a $25,000 fine. Furious about the penalty, he said he'd be suspended before he'd pay and angry fans rallied to his defense.
Hamlin this week announced he would not appeal the penalty, but still won't pay; NASCAR plans to settle the matter by garnishing the wages from his race winnings.
Fans, meanwhile, still want to see what exactly Hamlin said that was so wrong about the car.
Bristol could be the track that proves the car is very racy, even though pole-sitter Kyle Busch thought last week's race at Las Vegas was decent and there's no need to stress over the success of this Sunday.
"I think that we actually put on a good show last week in Vegas where there was a lot of good racing," Busch said. "I thought there was good racing throughout the field. I don't think this weekend here in Bristol needs to be a savior at all. I think we all just need to go out here and put on a good show and enjoy Bristol for what Bristol is and see what happens Sunday."