By Dustin Albino

Austin Cindric and Chase Briscoe might be close friends off the racetrack. But next weekend’s Round of 12 cutoff race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL is every man for themselves.

“[Briscoe’s] had my ass every single time we‘ve gone to the ROVAL, so I look at me as the underdog in that situation,” Cindric said, following a ninth-place finish at Talladega Superspeedway on Sunday.

The friendly duo finished one spot away from each other at Talladega, with Briscoe placing 10th. It’s the first time in his career that he’s had consecutive top-10 efforts, as he rounded out the top five at Texas last weekend.

Talladega could have ended much differently for Cindric. The No. 2 Ford was one of two playoff drivers (Joey Logano) to get involved in an eight-car pileup on lap 25.

Briscoe, meanwhile, earned one stage point in the second stage and made a late charge to 10th. He knows that being in the top eight in points following the Charlotte ROVAL — which he won the first ever Xfinity Series race at in 2018 — won’t be easy.

“Would have loved to score some more points, but to be tied going into the final race of this round is better than being 10 or 11 down,” Briscoe stated. “We came in above the cutline and came out even. The ROVAL is a place I feel like I get around really well.

“It‘s going to be totally different with this [Next Gen] car. Every road course we‘ve ran this year has been extremely hard to pass, so qualifying is going to be important.”

Briscoe called it odd to be tied with Cindric entering the ROVAL.

“We always talk a lot of smack to one another, so it will be interesting to see how it plays out this week,” he said. “We have an opportunity, we just have to go and capitalize on it.”

Not out of the possibility is a win from one of the drivers below the Briscoe and Cindric battle next weekend. William Byron enters the race 11 points below the cutline, though Hendrick Motorsports’ appeal from Texas will be heard this week. If it gets overturned — HMS believes it has a case — Byron could catapult both drivers and be inside the top eight.

In five prior road course races in 2022, Byron has a best finish of ninth at Sonoma. He’s just disappointed with a 12th-place effort at Talladega.

“Road coruses this year have been a little up and down, but certainly feel like [the ROVAL] is a good track for me,” Byron said. “We had a good run going last year, so we‘ve got to keep it up.

“Still puzzled by today; was never really a factor and couldn‘t quite really get towards the front.”

After top five finishes in the first three races of the playoffs, Christopher Bell has had a round to forget. The No. 20 car tallied zero stage points and finished 17th at Talladega — and even spun entering pit road in the second stage.

Bell is in must-win mode, 33 points below the bubble.

“Just a terrible, terrible race overall for me,” Bell said of Talladega. “We needed to come in here and maximize points and unfortunately we didn‘t get to do that.”

The good news for Bell is he does have a road course win in the Cup Series on his resume, albeit Toyota has struggled on road courses in 2022. The bright side is, the No. 20 car has arguably been the best of the bunch when turning left and right this year.

“Looking at the Indy road course, we were close to winning,” Bell said. “There‘s going to be a lot carnage. Hopefully, we‘re competitive and can be up front.”

Alex Bowman was unable to race at Talladega after having concussion-like symptoms following his crash at Texas. Rick Hendrick said in his post-race press conference on Sunday that it’s possible Bowman returns at the ROVAL, where he has top 1o finishes in all four contests, including a runner-up result in 2019.

Above the cutline by 12 points is Daniel Suarez, who picked up his first Cup win earlier this year at Sonoma and has three top-five finishes on road courses in 2022. Having gained one point on the cutline at Talladega — where he said his engine began to expire with 10 laps remaining — he’s confident for next week.

“Road course racing is something in our wheelhouse,” he said. “Looking forward to it.”

Should Byron’s penalty not get overturned, all eyes will be on the Briscoe-Cindric battle when the race begins. Both drivers have been solid on road courses in 2022, with the slight advantage going to the No. 2 team, earning a quartet of top-10 finishes in five races.

“I‘m used to racing him and I know it will be a fair, clean fight,” Briscoe noted. “That‘s one I look forward to, but he‘s not the only guy we‘re racing. We‘re going to go there and score as many points as we can, hopefully win the race and whatever the points are at the end, they are.”

Cindric knows the ROVAL will be tough on equipment and could cause some durability issues. But as he said, entering the cutoff race tied is “Better than coming in 11 below.”

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