|PHOTO: Brock Beard|
Matt Tifft picked up the 1st last-place finish of his NASCAR XFINITY Series career in Saturday’s VFW Sport Clips Help A Hero 200 at the Darlington Raceway when his #19 Ron John Surf Shop Toyota was involved in a two-car accident after 1 of 148 laps. The finish came in Tifft’s 35th series start.
The 21-year-old driver and UNC college student from Hinckley, Ohio has this year become one of the most interesting stories in the XFINITY Series garage. Mentored by several drivers, including XFINITY Series part-timers Tim Schendel and Benny Gordon, the last ten years has seen Tifft jump from go-karts to NASCAR’s second-tier division. In 2014, he finished 8th in his Truck Series debut at Martinsville, and by the following season, both Toyota and Joe Gibbs Racing came calling. 2015 saw his XFINITY debut at Kentucky, where he drove a Gibbs car to a 10th-place finish. The next year, he scored his first pole at Talladega, scene of the first of back-to-back 8th-place runs. But, soon after, it all almost came to an end.
During a routine appointment in June 2016, doctors discovered a brain tumor which required immediate medical attention. Within weeks, Tifft underwent surgery and was out of the driver’s seat at Gibbs. Doctors discovered the tumor was benign, and by September, he was cleared to race. Through it all, Tifft maintained a positive outlook, sharing his story on social media. He also didn’t lose his driving skills. At Kentucky, his first race back, he scored a career-best 5th, followed by an 8th at Charlotte and a 9th at Texas. By the end of the 2016 season, Tifft was announced as Gibbs’ full-time driver of the #19, replacing XFINITY Series champion and current Cup rookie Daniel Suarez.
Coming into Darlington, the highlight of Tifft’s 2017 season came just six days earlier at Road America. In the final laps, it was Tifft who found himself in front, positioning himself for a first XFINITY Series win. But, during those same laps, Jeremy Clements was charging through the pack, and caught Tifft for the lead coming to the white. The two made contact, sending both cars into a spin. While Clements managed to keep his car pointed straight, Tifft lost time getting back on course and was edged for 2nd by Michael Annett. Still, the 3rd-place run tied a new career-best, matching another 3rd earlier that month at Mid-Ohio. All together, Tifft sat 7th in the point standings after 23 races.
Darlington’s third annual “Throwback Weekend” saw Tifft drive one of many tributes to Dale Earnhardt – specifically the #19 Belden Asphalt Chevrolet that “The Intimidator” raced in the NAPA National 500 at Charlotte on October 9, 1977. The car Earnhardt drove was owned by longtime owner-driver Henley Gray, who at the time had retired from Cup racing with 374 starts over 14 seasons without a win. That day, Earnhardt did no better – rear end trouble took him out of the race after just 25 laps, leaving him 38th in a field of 41 (the late Bruce Hill, who A.J. Allmendinger honored last year, took last). Tifft’s Toyota would carry a similar paint scheme, but with sponsorship from the Ron John Surf Shop.
At the track, Tifft ran 17th in the opening practice session, 13th in Happy Hour, and came up just short of making the final round in qualifying, securing the 14th starting spot with a lap of 169.526mph. Just one driver was sent home after qualifying – the #15 Flex Seal Chevrolet of Reed Sorenson, who failed to complete a qualifying lap due to transmission issues.
*This marked the first last-place finish for car #19 in XFINITY competition since the 2015 finale at Homestead, where Jeff Green’s run in the TriStar Motorsports Toyota ended with transmission issues after 3 laps of the Ford EcoBoost 300. It was Green’s sixth last-place run in a row, setting a season-high record of 23 finishes for the year. It is also the first last-place finish for car #19 in an XFNIITY race at Darlington.
THE BOTTOM FIVE40) #19-Matt Tifft / 1 lap / crash
39) #93-Jeff Green / 8 laps / rear gear
38) #13-Carl Long / 29 laps / handling
37) #89-Morgan Shepherd / 51 laps / fuel pump / led 2 laps
36) #99-David Starr / 132 laps / running
2017 LASTCAR XFINITY SERIES OWNER'S CHAMPIONSHIP1st) RSS Racing (13)
2nd) B.J. McLeod Motorsports, Shepherd Racing Ventures (2)
3rd) Chip Ganassi Racing, Joe Gibbs Racing, Kaulig Racing, King Autosport, Motorsports Business Management, Richard Childress Racing, SS Green Light Racing (1)
1st) Chevrolet (22)
2nd) Dodge, Toyota (1)