Tifft, a 22-year-old from Hinckley, Ohio, advances to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series after finishing in the top 10 in the NASCAR Xfinity Series point standings the past two seasons. He joins Michael McDowell and David Ragan at FRM, as the team added a third car for 2019. FRM is one of the sport’s smaller teams, despite recently building a new race shop. Tifft comes to the organization after previously driving for the mega-teams of Joe Gibbs Racing, Richard Childress Racing and Kyle Busch Motorsports.
Frontstretch editor Michael Massie caught up with Tifft before the race at Atlanta Motor Speedway in late February.
Michael Massie, Frontstretch: What’s it like being in a Cup car so far? How is it different than Xfinity?
Matt Tifft: It’s weird so far just because my first two experiences are the [Daytona] 500, which is a much different deal as far as driving and stuff, and [Atlanta], which is a whole lot different than [Las] Vegas [Motor Speedway] and Phoenix [ISM Raceway] will be. I guess that part is strange because you always hear about the extremely high horsepower, hard to hold on to car as far as powers concerned, and that just hasn’t been the deal so far just because of the new rules package and everything.
So I’d say the main difference so far is just the access to data. Being able to actually see driver telemetry is huge. I think that’s going to help me as the year goes on. But I think it’s been a really cool experience, but certainly, you can tell the competition — you have to be perfect. These guys are just so good. Expecting that out of the car, out of yourself and everything just has to be right there.
Massie: What was your reaction when you saw the first four races would be four completely different packages? Were you like, ‘Come on.’
Tifft: No, for me coming into it, it’s an opportunity for us, especially with Front Row, to be able to jump up and try to learn some stuff and try to surprise some people in there. I think the [No.] 34 has been really quick these opening weeks so we’re trying to learn off of what they’ve been doing and trying to apply some of those setups to our cars now. So it kind of gives everybody a chance.
And as the year goes on, people are going to start figuring it out, and I think you’re going to see the same people go to the top again, but the opening weeks here, you have an opportunity to shoot up there.
Massie: How do those pre-race jitters compare in the Cup Series — seeing all these people here, all the festivities and all that — how does that compare to Xfinity?
Tifft: [The night before the Daytona 500], I was pretty anxious and nervous because of the waiting part of it, and I thought it would be a whole lot more on Sunday. But really, once we got to Sunday and had some appearances and went to the drivers meeting and got food, it was time to go to intros. And the scale of it is huge, it’s so much bigger than [Gander Outdoors] Trucks and Xfinity as far as crowd size and attention. And you just tell the energy is just totally different at the racetrack.
But as far as that part for me, it was pretty amazing to see all the pre-race stuff at Daytona [International Speedway] because I had never been there for a 500, so that was really cool and definitely a special moment. But I was more composed and better than I thought I was gonna be the night before. So I think once I got in the rhythm of the day, it was alright.
Massie: What’s it like going to a new team and having to get to know everybody again?
Tifft: It’s a challenge just to get things going the first couple weeks, and everyone’s kind of defining their roles and how people work together. So you try to take it week by week, and everybody gets a little bit better here and there. That’s the challenge you got with a new team is people haven’t worked together.
Last year, when I went to RCR, that group had worked together for five or six years before, so they had known each other, but I was the new guy. And now everybody’s kind of the new guy with each other. The good thing is I feel like we’ve got a really good group of guys so everybody has accepted the challenge of starting this new third team, and that’s a big undertaking. And moving shops over the off-season, so they definitely had their work cut out for them to get to this point. And now that we’re here, we just need to focus on the little things, of how we minimize mistakes and get ourselves better week in and week out.
Massie: What do you find are the major differences between working at Front Row compared to RCR or Joe Gibbs Racing?
Tifft: I think the biggest thing is, on the Xfinity side coming to this, I wouldn’t say it was entirely different. I think you see the major differences on the Cup side where you’ve got several hundred employees over there. Front Row did a huge expansion with the shop and everything there, so all of a sudden, it’s feeling like a bigger race team in there.
And I think the other thing to is, the cool part of it is you kind of go through the hiring process and look at the people that are coming in and are going to help the organization. But bringing in people like Mike Kelley, Drew Blickensderfer, and all of a sudden you’re getting these bigger name guys that are strong leaders. And that’s where I think for a smaller team like Front Row that has the capabilities of running well and running with our Roush [Fenway Racing] affiliates there, you need strong leaders to get everybody to that point.
Those small details matter so much. But at the same time, I think it’s kind of nice because it’s a little bit of an old school feel, like it’s a little more, I wouldn’t say relaxed, but you know more of the guys in the shop. Everybody really puts their pride into those cars. People have a lot more roles than just one. The people you have there are pretty diverse in their skill set.
Massie: Tell me a little about Bob Jenkins, owner of FRM. Have you had any interactions with him yet?
Tifft: Yeah, Bob’s been awesome. I got to meet him last year, so it’s been really cool to get to know him. My goodness, that guy’s just an incredible businessman. So it’s really neat to learn all about his companies, but also his passion for the race team.
And you look at Front Row as a whole, and every year, they get a little bit better. And you see that steady growth and methodical thought process going through his head of how to grow it. All these large race teams started from somewhere, and Bob’s kind of on the same path. And now, all of a sudden, you have him in a time where teams are cutting back or whatever, all of a sudden, Front Row is expanding and growing in the right direction.
And I think he’s just so smart of how he budgets for things. He takes his team as a whole, the concept of it wasn’t to go spend a ton of money and be up front and burn himself out of it, it was to progressively get better. And I think it provides a great value for partners that want to come into the sport too.
Massie: To put you on the spot, how would you describe Bob Jenkins in one word?
Tifft: Hmm, I guess I would say strategic.
Massie: Have you spent any time with David Ragan and Michael McDowell yet?
Tifft: Yeah, lots of time. So the cool thing there was I knew them both in the past so at least I’d been familiar with them. But they’ve been great. We’ve been communicating a lot — just things I needed to do, going before the 500, what to expect for that. In practice, just going over and debriefing and talking with those guys. They’ve been great to work with, and that’s good to see because that means that the three of us can work together really well. We can keep these programs on the move in the right path.
And it also gets everybody closer on the same page so, as we go along, we get closer to a baseline setup that’s more similar between everybody. And that’s where you see the good teams do a great job of having people have parallel setups that you just kind of tweak them for the drivers’ tendencies or what they want in there. And that’s where you see them build toward a common goal, and it makes the team better.
Massie: Any rookie hazing from them or any of the crew guys?
Tifft: No, they’ve been pretty nice. At least I’ve got some of the nicest guys in the garage there, so no hazing yet.
Massie: I noticed you were nabbed for speeding a couple of times in the Duels. Is there something different about coming onto pit road in a Cup car versus an Xfinity car?
Tifft: Yeah, I think I doubled my pit road speeding penalties of last year that night. Yeah, so the biggest difference you have is in the Xfinity car, you have the analog dash, so it’s the same tact I’ve been used to looking at since I’ve been driving late models. And all of a sudden, we’ve got the digital dash in [the Cup car]. Just the visual habit of looking at what I was used to before, and now looking at a different platform of what I’m seeing on the dash, it just messed me up a little bit, and I think because of that, we got some of our readings wrong there.
So once I understood that the first time, unfortunately, the second time it just wasn’t corrected enough. But that was definitely a big adjustment, and we’re still working with how to perfect that because there’s so much time to be gained on pit road. And if you can hit your RPM the right way to maximize your speed on pit road, it’s a huge advantage.
Massie: What tracks do you think your team has the best shot at? What tracks are the equalizers?
Tifft: Right now, I think just about any of them because we truly don’t know, like we talked about. It’s all kinds of different places we’re going to. I think places like Vegas, we’ll have a shot there, but I really think places like California [Auto Club Speedway] where you have seven or eight different lanes there and you can fan out. And track position normally matters there a good bit. I think places like that are gonna be factored into there.
Massie: In Xfinity, you were somewhat of a decent road course racer. Do you think you can jump up and surprise some people this year at the road courses?
Tifft: I don’t know. I never thought I was that great at road courses. So I don’t know if it was just those couple of tracks there that worked out well or what.
I really love Sonoma [Raceway] though. I’ve gotten to race a few times when I was younger in a K&N [Pro Series] car so I’m excited to get back there. Michael [McDowell] actually did some road course training with me a couple years ago, and that’s where I actually got better at road course racing.
I’m excited to go there with the new long course there. The whole new long course there at Sonoma is going to give a few more passing opportunities. It’s just a fun, unique, different deal to have more road course, and I wish we had even more on there, just because it puts so much of the race in your hands because you have control of what’s going on. And you do at ovals too, but it’s just a totally different skill set in there. So I enjoy it, it’s a fun challenge.