BRISTOL, Tenn. — 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 Food City 500 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.
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 and drivers could race side-by-side. 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.’’
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.