NASCAR has been in desperate need of a rivalry—and the Charlotte Roval provides the perfect venue to promote side-by-side and bumper-to-bumper racing.
While all eyes will be on Chase Elliott and Kevin Harvick in the Cup contest come Sunday, don’t overlook the undercard—the Drive for the Cure 250.
Austin Cindric is the only Xfinity Series driver locked into the Round of 8. With Josh Berry and Brandon Brown crashing the Playoff Party in the first two races in the Round of 12, Saturday should be a free-for-all for the final seven spots at the 17-turn, 2.28-mile circuit.
But if Bristol was any indication of AJ Allmendinger’s take-no-prisoners approach, don’t expect the two-time Roval winner to take a backseat to anyone—including the defending champion.
Cindric was classically trained on road courses around the world. Allmendinger, whose mother offered him the choice of new shoes or new tires for his go-kart during his formative years, honed his skills in CART before taking on the stock car challenge. His two Cup wins—including this year’s Indianapolis Grand Prix in August—both came on road courses as did his first three-career Xfinity victories.
Until 2020, Dinger’s second part-time season with Kaulig Racing, he had never won on an oval. Since then he has added two intermediate track wins—Atlanta Motor Speedway and Las Vegas Motor Speedway—and a two-mile victory at Michigan Speedway in August followed by the memorable battle with Cindric at Bristol.
Cindric led 63 of the final 64 laps—just not the one that counted. Allmendinger saw an opportunity and seized the moment, sending both cars sideways across the finish line.
“That’s how AJ races,” Cindric said at Bristol. “That’s how he’s always raced. He’s usually walked that fine line no matter what position he’s running on the racetrack. I respect him for it—not for tonight—but I respect him for it in general. He’s hungry. I think that’s proof. Not to sound arrogant, but how bad guys want to win, how bad guys want to beat us.”
With the win, Allmendinger scored a career-high fourth victory of the year and the regular-season title. Although Lady Luck was kind to the 39-year-old Californian the following race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Allmendinger lasted just 24 laps last weekend at Talladega Superspeedway before being swept up in a wreck with Sam Mayer. He finished 39th and dropped from second to fourth in the standings.
Allmendinger can clinch a spot in the Round of 8 by accumulating 23 points on Saturday—unless a driver currently outside of the top eight in the standings wins. Then his magic number is 31. But given their history, don’t expect Cindric to make it easy on him.
The No. 16 Chevy has been a roadblock in Cindric’s quest for a second Xfinity title—particularly when it comes to having an equal on road courses. On the first six NXS circuits, Cindric, 23, has posted one win (Indy G.P.), four top fives and five top 10s. He has led 122 laps.
Allmendinger has one pole, one win (Mid-Ohio), five top fives, five top 10s and has led 56 laps. But with an average finish of 1.0 at the Roval, no one has a better Xfinity record than Allmendinger.
“I’m excited to get back to the Roval after winning the last two races there,” Allmendinger said. “It’s probably the best track for us to go to after a tough weekend like we had at Talladega. The ultimate goal is to make it to the next round, so we have to play it smart. Depending on what the conditions are, we know whether it’s wet or dry we can be really good there.
“I’m looking forward to it. It’s definitely a new position for me to be in knowing that we have to make it to the next round. We will be smart, but we will race knowing we have a shot to win.”
If Cindric isn't enough for Dinger to contend with, he’ll also have to deal with the equally hungry Noah Gragson. The JR Motorsports driver also wrecked at Talladega and dropped from fifth to seventh in the standings. In his two Roval starts, Gragson enjoys the second-best average—3.5—and finished second to Allmendinger last year. He has won two of the last five races and added a podium finish at his home track, Las Vegas.
Gragson, 21, needs a minimum of 38 points to clinch, 46 points if a driver still eligible to advance wins. A win guarantees Gragson an automatic seat in the Round of 8.
Despite the prowess of Cindric, Allmendinger and Gragson, another wild card to consider is teen phenom Ty Gibbs. While he has yet to turn a lap in an Xfinity Series car at the Roval, his inexperience at other tracks has not slowed his success. Gibbs, who turned 19 on Monday, won the first road course race of the season at Daytona, followed by a Watkins Glen victory in August. Kyle Busch, who shared driving duties with Gibbs in the No. 54 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, also won two road course races this season—the inaugural NXS race at Circuit of the Americas and at Road America. And the last driver to win at Charlotte? Gibbs on the oval.