Race Weekend Central

Matt Tifft Learning From Teammates in Rookie Cup Season

Matt Tifft is perhaps one of the luckier drivers, heck people, in NASCAR. Just over three years removed from brain tumor surgery, he has been adjusting to his rookie season in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series with Front Row Motorsports.

Tifft ran a handful of Gander Outdoors Truck Series races from 2014 through 2016, scoring one top five and nine top 10s in 25 starts. After making his Xfinity Series debut with a 10th-place finish at Kentucky Speedway in 2015, he ran 10 events the following year before a pair of full-time seasons in 2017 and 2018. His Xfinity Series career yielded nine top fives and 38 top 10s in 77 starts before he was tapped to make the move the Cup Series. In 24 races this season, his lone top 10 came as a ninth-place result at Daytona International Speedway in July.

Tifft spent some time with Frontstretch at New Hampshire Motor Speedway a few weeks ago to discuss his infamous tow truck incident at Michigan, being recently engaged, life following brain surgery, adjusting to the Cup Series, driving for FRM and more.

This interview can be listened in audio form here.

Davey Segal, Frontstretch: A couple weeks back at Michigan, your truck got towed during qualifying. What happened?

Matt Tifft: I don’t know. I parked in the spot with my pass and the lady pointed me there. I got out of my car, was in my fire suit and the guy said it was getting towed. So I started running. I chased it down the backstretch and finally found it. We did eventually stop ‘em and wave ‘em down. That was not one of my finer moments, but out of it, at least there’s a story to tell there from now on.

Segal: You’re a Hinckley, Ohio native and Cleveland fan. The Browns are looking pretty good right now.

Tifft: I’m just hoping everyone can stay healthy. It’s an exciting deal for them. Last year I thought they were going to go 7-9 and I think they got close. It was the first time in forever they didn’t have a losing record. So my guess is that they’re either going to go 9-7 to 10-6. I’m excited to see them. Being born in 1996 and a Browns fan the whole time has been pretty rough. I’m excited to actually see some excitement and fun come back to Browns Sundays. And really, on the Xfinity side, I’d watch it every Sunday at home. I’ll have to keep up with it somehow, but they’ve got a lot of primetime games this year so I’ll still be able to check them out.

Segal: You still at UNCC or have you graduated from there?

Tifft: I haven’t gone there since 2016 when everything happened (brain tumor). When I got done with my medical recovery, the doctors told me for the stress and stuff, you need to focus on either school or racing. I guess I’d be a junior right now, but I never did end up graduating.

Who knows where life will take me, I may go back and end up doing that at some point. But as of right now, my credits still stand in the business school but I haven’t gotten the degree there yet. You never know what might come of things. Always good to have the education in there. The good thing about our sport is that we do work so much with sponsors and do so many board meetings, things with companies that I feel like I’m getting a lot of real-life education all the time. I never feel that I’m not learning at the things I’ve been wanting to learn anyways.

Segal: And you’re engaged! Congratulations! I speak on behalf on every dude: you got a good one.

Tifft: Yeah, thanks, appreciate that. It was after Homestead last year and we’re getting married here the first weekend of December. I way out-kicked my coverage [in snagging her]. I’m happy with that.

Segal: Last time we talked it was about one year removed from your brain surgery. Almost three years later, everything seems to be OK from the outside. Is that the case?

Tifft: It’s been totally great, kind of a whirlwind since we talked after that. I adapted an entirely new lifestyle with a ketogenic diet. It’s a high-fat, low-carb diet designed to help keep my brain tumor away. Ever since then, my scans have been awesome. I’ve been moved out to annual check-ups, and hopefully, after this next one we can move onto more than that. It’s been really good with that and really picked up a healthy and active lifestyle that I didn’t have before. I’ve been enjoying that but it’s certainly been great to have the health with all that.

Segal: Cliche, I know, but do you ever think back and are like “wow I had a brain tumor and here I am?”

Tifft: It is crazy, and especially when we hit the three-year mark a couple of weeks ago – the Back to Track documentary that NBC did on me – I went back and watched it because there was so much that I had forgotten of the process throughout all that. It was a really good reminder of what did happen. The documentary that was on me was really cool because it gave me a refresher on that stuff and reminded me of what did happen.

Although it feels like yesterday, sometimes it feels like it didn’t even happen at all. Still, there’s a half-dollar sized hole in there. But I don’t even think about it on a day to day basis at all unless I’m talking about it in an interview. Otherwise, I don’t feel it in my daily life at all, which is awesome.

Segal: We’ll get to Front Row, but I’d like to focus on you a little first. You’ve driven for Schrader, Gibbs, Childress, Kyle Busch, Bill Venturini in your career. Huge names, long list. Impressive.

Tifft: I certainly have been. My career has taken different paths, but it’s all been very positive. The thing I can say about all those owners and guys from those teams, I still have great relationships with. That’s one of the things you learn in this industry, is that it’s a small world. This is a very niche sport. You’re going to work with someone again that you have in the past. I don’t feel like I’ve burned bridges with anybody in this garage and I feel like that’s been really good.

What goes around comes around and I can walk around with my head held high because I’ve been respected by the guys I’ve worked with and at the same time I’ve gotten to learn from so many different organizations. I feel like understanding how they all work has made me a better driver.

Segal: What can you point to that you’ve learned from some owners in the past that you take with you?

Tifft: It’s harder to point back to the Schrader/Venturini days because I was still 16/17 years old. But I look at my Trucks and Xfinity career and everything leading up to my Cup career being at Joe Gibbs Racing and Richard Childress Racing, two very different dynamic teams in how they approach everything. They both have performance and history in those groups.

What it did make me realize was there were a lot of things I learned and became a better driver throughout that process that I wish I could have gone back and applied when I was at a KBM. I had a great opportunity there, was trying to mix it with school and probably didn’t give it the full focus I needed, honestly. I do regret that because I see how big of an opportunity that was and how great those trucks were. I look back and say I probably didn’t capitalize on that the way I needed to. Because of that, I’ve learned to make myself better and make sure I do the best I can with any group I’m with now.

It was a lot of fun last year with RCR. They really restored my confidence and got me feeling like I was a big part of their organization. That opened the doors too here at Front Row. It’s been a great learning process as I’m starting to move into a more active role here.

Segal: And now you’re driving for Bob Jenkins. How is he as an owner and to drive for? See him often?

Tifft: What people don’t realize about Bob is he’s super passionate about NASCAR. He has all these business entities and franchises but still is passionate enough to spend his own dollars in a NASCAR team. That’s really cool, says a lot about his passion for NASCAR, because that’s a big undertaking. It’s not an easy job to be a team owner in the sport. Our GM Jerry Freeze does a great job and plays the role of about five or six guys in our shop. The exciting thing is that there’s room for growth, and Bob sees that getting a brand new race team here. It’s exciting to be a part of that expansion. With that, there are going to be challenges and you just gotta plan out how to get better and take it a week at a time.

Segal: Front Row is running three full-time cars for the first time this season. How has that vibe been in the shop? It’s all you know, but a three-car Cup operation is a big freakin’ deal.

Tifft: In the beginning of the year, it was more of a scramble because they were trying to get cars together. Once we got past Atlanta and the West Coast swing, it calmed down for everybody. Once we had race cars that weren’t damaged, we could do things to them to try and improve them. Since then, it’s kind of been a company-wide search of what we like and what chassis we’re bringing to the track. Now that I feel we have a better direction on that, we can focus on our body builds and aero side, which will help us improve week to week as opposed to throwing darts without feathers.

Segal: How about your veteran teammates in Michael McDowell and David Ragan? What can you learn from them?

Tifft: They’ve been a lot of help. In different circumstances, I’ve been able to ask some things. Whether it’s been for on-track stuff or financial things on the personal side, they’ve been really good at that. In general, career and life advice has been cool to ask those guys. Traveling on the road for 38 weeks a year, it’s a different deal. I’m one of the few drivers that don’t have a motorcoach. I like to hang around with my guys. But that’s just a different approach I take. There’s little things I’ll ask them about performance, sponsorship or how they manage meetings and relationships with manufacturers. There’s so much you learn at an elevated level in the Cup Series that isn’t as big of a deal in NXS or Trucks.

Segal: People say the jump is insanely different from Xfinity to Cup. Can you attest to that now? Plus, these races are longer. Have you noticed that?

Tifft: I don’t think I have, besides just a handful of races. I think the 1.5-milers have been fairly easy as far as that’s gone. I feel like they’ve gone by fairly quickly. Especially for us, we’re racing so much against the clock not to get lapped so you’re all out to get to the stages and cautions.

The one that got to me was Martinsville and Bristol. At Martinsville, my spotter said it was the end of stage two and then said “150 to go, 100 to go, 75 to go,” I finally keyed up and said ‘dude, I’m just going. Do not tell me another lap because this is just killing me. It’s like, ‘hold it for 10 more seconds,’ you’re just like ‘alright enough. Stop.’ But that was the only time it got to me and said ‘man, 500 laps around here is a long time.’

Segal: Is there something specifically you’ve worked on this season?

Tifft: 400/500 miles of qualifying laps. In Xfinity and other years in Cup, you’d let each other go and try to do what made sense going through a run. With this package, this tire combination and how fast this leader is coming in clean air to catch the back of the pack, every single lap is just as intense from the first lap to the last lap. And even the guys in the Cup Series say ‘we race each other like complete jackasses.’ And you have to because if you don’t, the leader is coming and they’re going to screw you somehow. It’s a weird balance of how you can gain respect but also be extremely aggressive, and there’s a fine line between there. That’s been a big thing I’ve had to work on, as far as being more efficient with my passing and getting away from the leaders so you can get a buffer and don’t go a lap down.

About the author

Davey is in his fifth season with Frontstretch and currently serves as a multimedia editor and reporter. He authors the "NASCAR Mailbox" column, spearheads the site's video content and hosts the Frontstretch Podcast weekly. He's covered the K&N Pro Series and ARCA extensively for NASCAR.com and currently serves as an associate producer for SiriusXM NASCAR Radio and production assistant for NBC Sports Washington. Follow him on Twitter @DaveyCenter.

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