After the chaos and hectic pace he’s kept since the promotion to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, driver Matt Tifft can finally start to envision seeing the green flag waving.
Last weekend, Tifft found himself on the verge a life-long dream as he was surrounded by some of the best drivers in the world getting ready for the Daytona 500 this Sunday.
“I got a little anxious,” Tifft said. “There I am parked behind (seven-time Cup Series champion) Jimmie Johnson, and you go in thinking about all of the normal stuff for a race that you have to do, but then you look around and it’s the Daytona 500, but you’ve got to shut it out.”
Since announcing he was joining Front Row Motorsports and becoming the team’s third Cup Series driver in November, the 22-year-old Hinckley Township native has been going full speed to build his team and make all the necessary preparations for his move up to the highest level of NASCAR competition.
“It’s been a busy, busy offseason,” Tifft said. “The biggest challenge, and what we’ve spent the most time on since January, is building the (Front Row Motorsports) third team and finding the right people.”
After strategizing and planning, the team behind the No. 36 car finally got the chance to put its combined skills to use for the first time last weekend. Drivers and crews went through practice runs Saturday before the initial qualifying runs Sunday.
“We’ve got a great group of guys, but we hadn’t all worked together before the practice runs on Saturday,” Tifft said. “It was a good thing there were no big issues and everybody worked well together.”
Tifft credits fellow Front Row Motorsports drivers Michael McDowell and David Ragan for giving him advice on what to expect heading into his first race on the Cup Series.
“My teammates, I’ve leaned on their experience,” he said. “The biggest thing they tell me is just the different atmosphere and try to enjoy the moment. You don’t want to be too stressed out to enjoy it.”
Tifft has kept himself busy this week watching the past few Daytona 500s to pick up every clue he can as to where the best places on the track are to make his move.
“The Daytona 500 is unique,” he said. “It’s a race of survival, but it’s also about being strategic and smart. I’ve watched the last two Daytona 500s a few times already and I’m sure I’ll watch them a few more times just to be as prepared as I can be.
“The Daytona 500 is unpredictable, which makes it exciting. You have to have a plan in place, but be able to adapt when the time comes.”
During the initial qualifying runs Sunday, Tifft clocked a qualifying time of 47.703 and a top speed of 188.667 mph, which placed him 35th out of 40 qualifiers.
“Our speed chart was not where we wanted to be, but we have a few days to make changes, take notes and improve,” Tifft said.
The final starting order for the race was determined at the Gander RV Duel, a pair of 150-mile races run under the lights at Daytona International Speedway on Thursday night.
Tifft doesn’t want to set any specific expectations for the weekend, but did note Trevor Bayne won his first Daytona 500 the day after his 20th birthday to become the youngest winner of the race.
“It’s such a special weekend and everything has gone so well, so far,” Tifft said. “The race is just about surviving and learning as I go in order to be there at the end and try to make a move.”
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