(Photo: Nigel Kinrade Photography)

2019 NASCAR Driver Reviews: Matt Tifft

Entering the 2019 NASCAR Cup Series season, Matt Tifft was not the favorite to win the rookie of the year award. Still, after back-to-back top-10 finishes in the Xfinity Series championship standings, Tifft joined Front Row Motorsports to pilot the No. 36 Ford in his rookie season.

Having no prior Cup Series experience and FRM having accrued only two victories, a key goal for Tifft was to log as many laps as possible. Partnered with two-time Xfinity championship-winning crew chief Mike Kelley, Tifft finished 28 of his 32 races this season, albeit with only six lead-lap finishes.

The season did not begin well; Tifft crashed out of the Daytona 500 and finished 36th. He managed to finish the next eight races before a wreck at Talladega Superspeedway led to his second DNF of the season.

Tifft only recorded two finishes inside the top 20 this season, but he continually improved upon his qualifying effort.

Tifft made a rookie mistake at Michigan International Speedway in June, but it was not on track. After qualifying 26th for the race, he attempted to return to his personal vehicle. Unfortunately, he learned it had been towed.

In the race itself, he continued his trend of finishing better than his qualifying effort. Two spots are only a meager amount, but Tifft also finished on the lead lap in 24th. Overall, he had a memorable first Cup race weekend in Brooklyn, Mich.

In the weather-shortened race at Daytona International Speedway, as Justin Haley celebrated his first career Cup Series win, Tifft too had cause for celebration. He gained 22 positions from start to finish, finished on the lead lap, and came in ninth place, his first career top-10 finish.

Prior to the race weekend at Pocono Raceway, FRM announced Seth Barbour would move from the No. 38 team to become Tifft’s crew chief. The move initially paid some dividends as Tifft completed all but one lap in his first three races with Barbour atop the pit box.

Additionally, at Michigan in August, Tifft confirmed to Frontstretch he had a two-year contract with FRM and he expected to return to the No. 36 in 2020.

As the season progressed, Tifft routinely drove his No. 36 Ford with a variety of sponsors. The August race weekend at Michigan saw retailer Meijer come on board as his primary sponsor, one of many snazzy paint schemes throughout the season the No. 36 carried.

 

Following teammate David Ragan‘s announcement that he would retire from full-time racing, Tifft thanked Ragan.

“You’re an even better family man and I know you will enjoy that time with your kids away from track,” he said. “Soak it up. Thanks again!”

Darlington Raceway is known as the track too tough to tame, but Tifft showed no fear. Despite finishing five laps down, he finished 27th, five spots better than his qualifying effort.

The Southern 500 also is the race in which drivers race cars with throwback paint schemes, and the Cup rookie joined in on the fun. FRM called the No. 36 the Tifft family throwback. It honored the dirt late model the Tifft family owned when Matt Tifft was young.

Tifft’s ability to receive the checkered flag at the end of the race, even if multiple laps down, planted him in 31st in the championship standings for a large portion of this season. From the ninth race of the season at Richmond Raceway until the 30th race of the season, Tifft was in 31st place in the championship standings.

His second top 20 of the season, in the 1000Bulbs.com 500 at Talladega Superspeedway, moved him up to 30th in the standings.

FRM  was one of the teams sometimes linked to silly season rumors, but Tifft appeared to be set to drive the No. 36 Ford in 2020. Unfortunately, on Oct. 26, Tifft was transported via ambulance from Martinsville Speedway to a nearby hospital.

Tifft tweeted an update three days later, revealed he had suffered a seizure.

Indeed, his seizure prematurely ended his rookie season four races early. FRM announced John Hunter Nemechek would take over as the driver of the No. 36 Ford for the final three races of the season.

The medical issue also altered Tifft’s 2020 plans. Because of the seizure, he became unable to commit to FRM for a full season. As a result, Tifft and the team mutually parted ways on Nov. 13.

FRM’s 2020 lineup will consist of Michael McDowell and Nemechek, consolidating from three full-time teams to two.

Although Tifft is unemployed for the 2020 racing season, he ended this year on a high note. On Dec. 7, he got married.

On track, Tifft proved he belonged in the Cup Series. He only finished on the lead lap (six of 32 races), but he crossed the finish line in 28 of those 32 races.

Before his medical issue ended his season, Tifft was three points ahead of teammate Ragan and within reach of Corey LaJoie. Ragan is a two-time winner in the Cup Series and LaJoie will remain the driver of the No. 32 Go Fas Racing Ford in 2020. Tifft had earned another season as the driver of the No. 36 Ford.

With his medical issue, what is the future for the 23-year-old from Hinckley, Ohio? With his seizure occurring on Oct. 26, Tifft will likely be sidelined from competing in NASCAR for at least six months. That pushes his return to April 26 at the earliest.

As a result, Tifft will not compete full time in any of the NASCAR national series. Additionally, many of the top tier rides will have full-time drivers, so if he is able to return, Tifft will likely not be competing in the Cup Series.

What then are his options for 2020, if he returns? If Tifft brings some of those sponsors which sponsored in the No. 36 Ford in the Cup Series, he will have a few opportunities. In the Xfinity Series, three teams come to mind. MBM Motorsports, Martins Motorsports and Our Motorsports plan on running full-time teams, and Tifft’s funding could land him a few races for one of those teams.

The NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series silly season has been slower to develop, but one possibility could be the No. 51 Kyle Busch Motorsports Toyota. Kyle Busch and Chandler Smith have already been announced as drivers for that entry, but Tifft has driven for the team before; nine of his Truck starts came in KBM trucks. If he wants to race and compete for wins in any NASCAR series, this would be his best option. Otherwise, his Truck options would be for lower-funded teams.

2019 Stats

32 starts, one top 10

Best finish: Ninth (Daytona, July)

Point standings: 31st

Grade: C-

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About Mark Kristl

Mark Kristl
Mark joined Frontstretch at the beginning of the 2019 NASCAR season. He is an Eagle Scout & a proud University of Dayton alum. He also writes about NASCAR for Beyond the Flag.

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