Whispers in the Dark: Year after brain tumor scare, Matt Tifft can finally get some sleep

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Even before he knew about it, the tumor that once slowly grew in Matt Tifft‘s brain kept him awake at night.

When Tifft drove at night, walked through his darkened house or just lay in bed, a sense of paranoia would envelop the then 19-year-old.

“I actually for a long time would hear strange voices,” Tifft told NBC Sports. “One of the symptoms of brain tumors is badly increased anxiety. That would actually really bother me. I would have to have a box fan. I would have to have some kind of noise to distract me from it to be able to fall asleep.”

He couldn’t always drown out the “strange whispers.” Tifft would often hear eerie music.

“It seemed a lot of times like pop songs with female singers and it would get played into this bizarre, creepy tune in my head,” Tifft said. “And it was warping itself and it was really freaky. It was really bizarre. I didn’t know what it was and it didn’t bother me during the day or anything.”

The strange sensation grew “more and more frequent” as time went on. Tifft went from being “a very calm person to being a very paranoid person in that time frame. … It was totally taking over my head.”

The nocturnal feelings were compounded by an early morning sensitivity to light, which Tifft thought was the result a concussion earlier in his racing career.

This was what led to Tifft to ask for a MRI of his brain in early June last year during a doctor’s visit related to a back problem. Weeks later, on July 1, Tifft had brain surgery to remove a low-grade tumor in his right frontal lobe.

Almost a year later, the whispers and paranoia are gone.

Now Tifft is reminded of the tumor and recovery process that kept him out of the driver’s seat for three months every time he gets a hair cut.

That’s when he sees the scar.

“I always kind of forget it’s there until I go get a hair cut and it’s like, ‘Oh yeah, it’s still there,'” Tifft said. “You never know if it’s going to go away or not.”

Now what keeps Tifft awake at night is the general anxiety of being a rookie for Joe Gibbs Racing in the Xfinity Series.

“For awhile it was, ‘ok, what’s wrong with me?'” Tifft said. “Now, it’s just, ‘Ok, how do I make myself better? What do I need to do to do get our team where it needs to be and get out of where we’ve been?’ … At the same time I’ve actually taken quite a few steps to control that stress and anxiety throughout the week.

“I think that’s been part of my maturation process, being able to control that and be able to just let it go a little bit. I’ve gotten better with that. It’s learning how to slow down and be your thoughts in your head. I think that’s the biggest thing now, just wanting to be better and wanting to succeed.”

The Hinckley, Ohio native is 10 races into his tenure driving the No. 19 Toyota full-time for JGR. So far his results haven’t been stellar. He is eighth in points and has earned just two top 10s (Texas, Talladega). He’s led only four laps, at Phoenix, and he placed 26th last weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway for his second-worst finish of the year.

But the tense summer last year surrounding his tumor has provided Tifft with helpful insight surrounding his career and life.

It could be worse.

“Other than check ups, I’m good,” said Tifft, who gets a MRI every eight weeks to make sure there’s no signs of a resurgent tumor. “There’s still people that do have to deal with it.”

Every week, Tifft tries to meet fans at the track who have gone through similar experiences or with family members of those who have. At Charlotte, Tifft’s car was sponsored by the National Brain Tumor Society and BrainTumor.com as part of Brain Tumor Awareness Month.

In April, Tifft took part in Charlotte’s Brain Tumor 5k that raised $135,000 for research and awareness. A month later, Tifft traveled to Washington D.C. to petition members of Congress for more funding for brain tumor research programs.

“I guess that makes me feel good to still help out other people and families going through it,” Tifft said. “A lot of people, it’s not four months of stuff, it’s four years. It’s forty years worth of stuff. That’s a bit different than what I had to do.”

But the four months Tifft experienced will make June 26 mean a bit more to him this year. That’s when Tifft will turn 21.

“Everyone talks about turning 21, people know why you’re excited to turn that,” Tifft said. “But for me, I’ve gone through so much by the time I’ve been 21 years old. It’s crazy when you look back at the year. Not only me, everything I’ve had to grow through and things going on around me. It’s been a pretty challenging year just in itself. I’m hoping that’s a bit of a reset button.”

However he celebrates, at least he’ll be able to sleep it off.

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Martinsville Truck race postponed to Sunday after Cup race

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The Alpha Energy Solutions 250 Truck race at Martinsville has been postponed until Sunday afternoon, following the Cup race.

Ben Rhodes led the field to green 2:05 p.m. and held the lead until Mike Senica stalled on the track. Rhodes led the first 23 laps until precipitation red flagged the event at 2:17.

The Truck race will be televised on FS1.

Martin Truex Jr. sweeps Martinsville Cup practice

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After posting the fastest single lap and quickest 10-lap average in the first practice, Martin Truex. Jr. also topped the fastest lap chart in final practice for the STP 500 with a speed of 95.415 mph.

Also repeating his performance from the first practice, Brad Keselowski was second on the leaderboard. Keselowski was fast on long runs with the quickest 10-lap average of 94.579 mph.

Sophomore Daniel Suarez was notably fast. His lap of 95.588 mph was third on the chart.

Kyle Busch (95.122) and Ryan Newman (94.756) rounded out the top five.

Jimmie Johnson (93.831) was hoping to carry over momentum from last week’s top 1o at Auto Club, but struggled to find single lap speed. He landed 28th on the speed chart.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. wheel hopped entering turn three with 33 minutes remaining. He rolled out a backup car and will start at the back regardless of where he qualifies.

Click here for the full final practice times.

History looms for the Wood Brothers

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Glen Wood first came to Martinsville, Virgina in November 1953, making the short 30-minute drive from Stuart for his NASCAR debut in a family owned car. Nearly 65 years later, the famed Woods Brothers are still racing the iconic No. 21 on the half-mile bullring.

The torch has since been passed to Glen’s sons, but the history remains.

“Our dad came here and raced,” Eddie Wood said in a press release before the STP 500. “He raced here in the fifties and it’s just a special, special place and knowing that the Ford Fusions ran really well last year here that gives you a lot of confidence. I’m sure it gives Paul (Menard) a lot of confidence, but it’s just a special, special place.”

Last fall, Ryan Blaney returned the 21 to the top 10 on the team’s home track for the first time in 12 years. He finished eighth in the First Data 400. This year, Blaney turned the car over to Menard and as the series comes to Martinsville for the first of two races this year, the legacy continues.

“The pressure is all what you make of it,” Menard said. “I know a couple things – I’ve got a great team behind me. We’re gonna have a fast Ford and we’re gonna have a lot of fans cheering on the 21 car, so you can think about that every waking second you’re up here, or you can go to work and do your business. It’s obviously an honor to drive this car and to be a part of the Wood family driving the 21 at Martinsville, and I’m really gonna think about that when I put my firesuit on, but once you get the helmet on it’s all business.”

The gravity of protecting the Wood Brothers’ legend at Martinsville is increased by the fact that this week marks NASCAR’s first short track race of the season and a return to its grassroots. It is easy to feel the history of racing on this little track nestled in rural Virginia—not only for the iconic team, but the entire field.

“It’s getting back to grassroots,” Menard said. “Over half the guys, probably more than that, started racing at short tracks with late models somewhere. We were running 25 laps back then versus 500 now, but the stage racing is kind of like a couple of heat races before the A Main, so you try to get your points when you can and be smart about things when you can and let it rip when you can.”

“You can race here year after year, race after race and there’s no way anybody can mess this race up,” Eddie Wood said. “This is just always a great race because it’s tight and it’s grassroots, it’s NASCAR roots.”

The STP 500 is not just another race for the Wood Brothers. On a track that puts a premium on mechanical grip and driver ability, as opposed to flat out horsepower, Menard has greater control over his fate. That is both good and bad news, because a milestone has been within reach for the past 27 races –  the team’s 100th win.

“It would be huge,” Menard said of the 100th win. “I’ll take it anywhere. We started at Daytona and didn’t get it there, and we’ll keep working until we get it. Martinsville would be a huge one for us, obviously, and if we do that, we’ll have another one for the museum down the road.”

Ben Rhodes grabs Martinsville Truck pole

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Ben Rhodes laid down a lap of 95.942 mph in the final round of qualification for the Alpha Energy Solutions 250 Truck series at Martinsville to win his third career pole.

Teammate Matt Crafton will line up beside him on the outside of the front row with a lap of 95.704 mph.

Grant Enfinger qualified third to give ThorSports a clean sweep of the top spots.

Round two: Kyle Benjamin was fastest 95.830 mph. With time running off the clock, Myatt Snider (94.984) bumped Harrison Burton (94.770) out of the top 12.

Round one: Todd Gilliland topped the chart with a speed of 95.213 mph. He will have to drop to the back to start the race because of an engine change, so he did not attempt to post a time in the second round.

Click here for the race lineup.

Weather permitting, the green flag will wave over the field at 2 p.m.