Matt Tifft’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series debut Sunday at the Daytona 500 took a dramatic turn with only 10 laps left.
The Hinckley Township native got caught up in a large collision on Turn 3 that began when Matt DiBenedetto’s
No. 95 car was bumped from behind and spun out and hit the wall. The crash damaged 18 of the 40 cars that began the race, including DiBenedetto’s.
Tifft was running around 20th when the crash occurred in front of him. He tried to avoid the wreck on the low side but was hit by Tyler Reddick’s Chevrolet on the right.
“I couldn’t get the right line and, unfortunately, got caught up in (the wreck) and had no place to go,” Tifft said in a phone interview less than an hour after the race ended. “That’s how Daytona goes. It’s unpredictable, and there’s a lot out of your control.
“Sometimes you’re the bug, and sometimes you’re the windshield. Today, we were the bug.”
Tifft was rallying from 26th and had climbed as high as 18th in front of a strong family contingent that made the trip to Florida, including his fianc￩e, Jordan Holt, mother, father, brother, sister and cousins.
“Last night I was more anxious. Today I was pretty busy, which was nice,” Tifft said. “Watching the Thunderbirds fly over after the National Anthem, they are iconic, and that was a cool moment that I dreamed about as a kid.”
Tifft officially finished 36th. After starting 33rd, the 22-year-old worked his way up as high as eighth in the last few laps of the first 60-lap stage of the race before he had to dodge another crash.
“We started off inching our way up,” Tifft said. “We got up there and the pack was so much faster, and then I had to dodge a wreck and had to go in defensive mode a bit.”
Denny Hamlin took the checkered flag to win his second Daytona 500 after leading 30 laps. Hamlin’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammates, Kyle Busch and Erik Jones, finished second and third.
Michael McDowell, Tifft’s Front Row Motorsports teammate, was among the leaders and finished the fifth after beginning next to Tifft in 34th. Tifft’s other teammate, David Ragan, also was caught in the crash that ended Tifft’s race and took 30th.
“(McDowell) did a great job,” Tifft said. “He was right there. He picked the right lines at the right time, which is something I can learn from, because I was a little conservative feeling it out.”
Prior to the race, Tifft talked about his Cup Series debut being a learning experience.
The race did not disappoint.
“Racing with that group of guys was cool, but you have to be perfect because those are the best drivers in the world,” Tifft said. “I wanted to finish, but I’m glad I got to run as long as I did and got a feeling of what it was to run a Cup race.”