CHARLOTTE, N.C. — A year ago entering the NASCAR XFINITY Series playoff opener at Kentucky Speedway, Matt Tifft was simply thankful to be at the race track.
At that point, he was rebounding from brain surgery for a benign tumor that had taken him out of the race car for two months, but Tifft used the motivation of “simply having another chance” to notch his career-best oval track finish of fifth in his first race back with Joe Gibbs Racing.
Now, one year removed from that experience, Tifft is wiser and more seasoned behind the wheel, but equally as thankful for the opportunities he has in front of him as he embarks on his first-ever championship run in racing.
“It’s been a journey, for sure, man,” Tifft said with a smile. “From last year to now, I’ve learned a lot … but the goals have always remained the same. Maybe we haven’t been where we want to be at times, but I’m just blessed to be doing what I’m doing and competing with Joe Gibbs Racing. For me, that’s been a reward in itself.”
He admitted Tuesday during XFINITY Playoff Media Day at the Embassy Suites in Charlotte that his mindset is largely staying the same for the playoffs as what it was when he entered the season.
“I don’t think (anything’s) changed at all,” Tifft said. “I think that we know from here on out that it’s our responsibility to get our team as far as we can. Obviously, (the Nos. 18 and 20 teams) still have the owner’s championship to go for, but for the driver’s championship — the one that’s important in the public eye and for my career — that’s very much here and for the taking. We’re really looking forward to it.”
Third-place finishes at the Mid-Ohio and Road America road courses, as well as a comeback sixth-place run in the regular season finale last weekend at Chicagoland Speedway, have Tifft optimistic that his No. 19 team is peaking at the right time.
“I think we found a lot of speed in the recent months here … so we’re looking forward to getting this thing rolling,” he said. “I think we can make it far into the playoffs and I think we’re going to be a contender there. We’ve just got to keep on plugging along like we have been and just keep on chipping away and getting better.”
But Tifft was also quick to reflect on the timing of things that happened over his last 15 months, from the surgery on July 1 all the way to the present, and how it made him stronger as a person and a driver.
“I think the timing of the things that happened last year – there was so much pressure of getting back into the car and what would happen … but Kentucky was a great race for me stepping back into the XFINITY Series and it’s only built from then on.”
“I think I’ve grown in the fact that, even with the Playoffs, yes that’s tons of stress … but I’ve dealt with bigger stresses in my life and I have a fresh perspective going in. (Having the chance to race for a championship) means everything to me right now and I know I’m going to go out there and do everything I can to perform the best, but we have to keep our expectations realistic and have fun along the way.”
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