By Toby Christie (Follow on Twitter @Toby_Christie)
When Matt Tifft announced that he was moving from Joe Gibbs Racing (the premier team in the NASCAR Xfinity Series) to Richard Childress Racing for the 2018 NXS season, many expected a steep drop in performance for the 22-year-old. However, Tifft put up his best numbers to date.
Tifft showcased incredible road course savvy as he secured two top-five finishes and three top-10 finishes in his four starts on tracks that feature left and right turns. The only non-top-10 road course finish was a 37th place DNF at Watkins Glen, but Tifft was inside the top-five at the moment he was crashed out.
Tifft’s career-best finish came at Road America when he crossed the line in second after starting from the pole for the second time in his brief career.
“It was awesome to get our first pole of the year at a road course. I really thought I had messed up my lap, but it turned out to be the fastest one, which seems to happen a lot at road courses,” said Tifft. “We dominated the first stage of the race, earning our first stage win of the season. I got shuffled back a little bit toward the end of the race on the restart, but with the handling and speed of my Camaro I was able to climb back to third and then into second. I wish we could have gotten up there to challenge Justin Allgaier for the win, but we just ran out of time.”
Overall, the Ohio-native proved to be quite well-rounded in 2018 as he secured top-10 finishes at every style of race track except the restrictor plate tracks (Daytona and Talladega) which are crapshoots for the most part.
When the season ended, Tifft had racked up six top-five finishes and 19 top-10 finishes. He also made it into the Round of 8 in the NASCAR Xfinity Series Playoffs, before ultimately settling for a sixth place points ranking at season’s end.
Tifft set or tied his career-best totals in top-fives, top-10s, poles, laps led and average finish in 2018.
2019 will be an entire new game for Tifft as he will compete for Rookie of the Year honors in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. Tifft will also swap manufacturers for the third straight season. This time around Tifft will be driving a Ford Mustang for Front Row Motorsports, which will expand from a two-car effort to a three-car team in ’19.
Front Row Motorsports has made leaps in their performance in recent seasons, but the realistic expectations for top finishes for Tifft this year would be at the two restrictor plate tracks (where FRM has excelled in the past) as well as the road races (where Tifft has shown incredible speed in the NXS ranks).
Although no sponsorship package has been announced for Tifft yet, the team has done a great job of finding and keeping sponsors over the years. This should bode well for a young driver trying to work his way into being a longtime Cup Series driver. The team has yet to announce a crew chief for Tifft as well.
Tifft will join veterans David Ragan and Michael McDowell as a teammate and he should bring some new perspective and youthful exuberance to the stable. Tifft is a very focused and mentally strong driver as he rebounded from brain surgery after a growth was found on his brain a few years ago.
Adversity keeps being stacked up against this young driver, but he keeps surpassing expectations every time a new obstacle comes along. Expect a very decent rookie campaign for Tifft, and perhaps even a surprise good finish – or two – throughout the year.