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NASCAR Next: Matt Tifft’s Long Summer

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If he were to start writing it today, what would 20-year-old Matt Tifft title his autobiography?

“That’s a good (question),” Tifft says. “Because whatever I think of, it’s definitely a whole lot different than say March or April.”

Tifft takes 20 seconds to think about it. Over the phone, 20 seconds of silence can feel like minutes. But Tifft has to consider what he has experienced in the last three months.

Like any other person, the three months that made up the majority of the summer feel like they occurred over “almost a year” while going by in “kind of a blur.”

On May 21, Tifft finished sixth at Charlotte Motor Speedway in his third Camping World Truck Series race of the year for Red Horse Racing. Tifft wasn’t scheduled to make another NASCAR start until the June 18 Truck race at Iowa Speedway.

But Tifft wouldn’t start that race, the Xfinity event the next day or any race since. Through either multiple wrecks in 2015 or a general lack of care for his back, on June 14 it was announced that Tifft would miss both races due to a “disc condition.”

On July 1, Tifft underwent brain surgery.

“Oh boy, that’s a good question,” Tifft says after 20 seconds are up. “Let’s call it ‘The Race Against Time.’ I like that one.”

SUMMER BREAK

While getting his back examined, Tifft asked for a scan of his brain.

The driver had suffered a concussion early in his career and believed an ongoing sensitivity to light was a lingering symptom.

“I just really wanted to get a baseline MRI for my head moving on, just in case something did happen,” Tifft says.

“Just in case” happened immediately. The scans showed a mass on Tifft’s right frontal-lobe.

In a conference call including his parents Quinten and Victoria Tifft back home in Ohio, doctors said they believed Matt had either Cellular Dysplasia or a low-grade brain tumor, which the former could be mistaken for.

Tifft’s parents immediately bought tickets to North Carolina, where they would remain through the entirety of their son’s ordeal.

“I knew there was the possibility of it being (a tumor), but until we did the biopsy, there was no way of knowing,” Tifft says. “I kind of had a strange feeling that it might have been a tumor. I had no evidence of that, but sometimes in those situations you kind of have to prepare yourself for the worst.”

If it were a tumor, the treatment, depending on the diagnosis, could make it worse.

Tifft’s MRI results were sent to the Carolinas Medical Center’s tumor board which decided there was a 60 percent chance the mass was a tumor and a 40 percent chance it was Dysplasia. With such close numbers, a biopsy was ordered.

Tiff waited a week to learn the results.

“I knew if it was a tumor that I was probably going to have surgery or there’s chances of doing chemo or radiation,” Tifft says. “If it’s Dysplasia, I wouldn’t have missed any races and everything would have been probably fine. Maybe they do something for the Dysplasia, but more than likely no.”

It was a tumor. A low-grade one, but still a tumor, located in his right-frontal lobe and roughly the size of a half-dollar.

“The fact that I caught it when I did is shocking, because I shouldn’t have caught it,” Tifft says. “It shouldn’t have made enough symptoms to be able to find it with how the tumor was. Which is kind of the scary part, because if I hadn’t of said something about it, there’s no telling when I would have caught it.

“If I was 30, it might have been a Grade Four tumor that could have taken a cancerous form, you just don’t know.

On June 28 it was announced that Tifft, in the middle of a year that has included driving for Joe Gibbs Racing and being named to this year’s’ NASCAR Next class, would undergo brain surgery.

THE ROAD BACK

Tifft woke up.

He remembers seeing a black and red clock that read 7:31.

The surgery had begun around 3 p.m.

Tifft has not been able to sleep the night before thinking about what could happen during his surgery – losing his motor skills or the use of the right side of his face. Now he wasn’t given time to think.

After quickly being wheeled to his room, Tifft was given a series of tongue twisters he can no longer remember thanks to anesthesia. “After I did that, I was like ‘huh, ok, I must be alright.'”

His path back to a racing wasn’t clear yet.

Though he wouldn’t have to undergo chemotherapy or other forms of aggressive treatment therapy, Tifft participated in a five-day EEG test to survey the electric activity in his brain.

A two-day test prior to the surgery to measure his susceptibility to seizures, which are linked to tumors, had come back negative.

The post-surgery test during the week of Aug. 9 was to ensure he had the same chance of a seizure happening as any other driver.

For five days 25 probes were glued to Tifft’s head. A wire leash kept him from moving more than 10 feet.

“I was not allowed out of the room,” Tifft says. “I could walk to the bathroom, that was about it.”

His entertainment?

“Let me tell you, I watched a lot of the Olympics,” Tifft says with a laugh. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen so much Olympics coverage.”

While he watched and even now, Tifft feels his brain repairing itself after removal of the tumor.

“Every day you’d have these little electrical pulses in the area where the tumor was and it’s literally your brain rewiring, which is crazy,” Tifft says. “It had a foreign thing there and now it is trying to fill it up with fluid and all that kind of stuff, which it’s still doing, but it’s completely fine now.”

Along the way Tifft has even bonded with Sprint cup star Dale Earnhardt Jr., who has given the driver two decades younger than him advice based on his recovery from a concussion.

On Aug. 5, Tifft tweeted that he felt completely “like myself” for the first time since his surgery. At a Aug. 19 press conference at Bristol Motor Speedway, Tifft said he was cleared by doctors to drive a race car again.

But Tifft won’t truly be himself until he’s competing in a race again.

NEVER TELL ME THE ODDS

After a mid-season break that’s lasted almost long as a normal offseason, Tifft would give anything to just blow an engine on the first lap of a race.

“As a race car driver, that’s something you never want to do,” Tifft says. “I’d much rather have that day than what I went through here. There’s a lot of positives to take away from it, but it’s hard to understand what that type of thing puts you through.”

Tifft finally returned to a cockpit on Monday, driving a late-model in a test at Hickory Motor Speedway.

When he finally does participate in a race weekend, Tifft will have many thoughts on his still mending mind. Among those will be the words of medical professionals who thought Tifft would never get to experience life from the cockpit again.

“I’m sure it will be emotional, but almost a relief, too,” Tifft says. “I had some people say in this whole process that I would never race again … It’s a dream of mine that I always had as a kid and I just grew up as a fan and I get to do what I love. Feels like it got taken away from me a little bit and I can’t wait to get back.”

Results, point standings after Truck race at Las Vegas

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Austin Hill won Friday night’s Truck Series race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway for his second win of 2020.

He beat Sheldon Creed for the victory.

The top five was completed by Tanner Gray, Stewart Friesen and Chandler Smith.

IndyCar driver Conor Daly finished 18th and Travis Pastrana was 21st.

Click here for the race results.

Point Standings

With his win, Austin Hill is the first driver to advance to the second round of the playoffs.

Todd Gilliland is last in the playoff standings with 2,050 points. He is 13 points behind Ben Rhodes.

Click here for the standings.

Austin Hill wins Las Vegas Truck race

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Austin Hill won Friday night’s Truck Series playoff race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, leading the final 39 laps to score the victory.

Hill took the lead on a restart and held off charges from Sheldon Creed over the final 20 laps.

Creed’s progress was slowed with 11 laps to go when he got loose and scraped the wall in Turn 1. He was never able to get close enough to Hill to make a challenge.

Creed dominated the early portion of the race, leading 89 laps before he struggled to get going on the final restart and briefly fell to seventh.

The win is the second of the year for Hill. He’s the first playoff driver to win in the postseason and it come after he finished 25th at Bristol.

“We didn’t have the best truck tonight by no means,” Hill told FS1. “Pit crew did a hell of job on that last pit stop getting me into the position I needed to. I just had to go out there and get it. … Sheldon was definitely way faster than me. … I was probably looking in my mirror more than I was our front. I knew he was better than we were.”

The top five was completed by Tanner Gray, Stewart Friesen and Chandler Smith.

More: Race results and point standings

STAGE 1 WINNER: Sheldon Creed

STAGE 2 WINNER: Sheldon Creed

WHO HAD A GOOD RACE: Tanner Gray, Stewart Friesen and Chandler Smith all matched their best results of the season … While he was the first driver to finish one lap down, IndyCar driver Conor Daly placed 18th in his first career Truck Series start … Travis Pastrana placed 21st in his second start of the season.

WHO HAD A BAD RACE: Rachael Lessard finished 20th after he had to pit early in the race following contact with the wall … Ben Rhodes finished 23rd after he spun from contact with Stewart Friesen and hit the inside wall on Lap 84 … Jordan Anderson’s engine expired on the ensuing restart. He finished 32nd.

NOTABLE: Natalie Decker, who was not medically cleared to compete Friday night, was treated and released from the infield care center.

WHAT’S NEXT: Race at Talladega Superspeedway, 1 p.m. ET Oct. 3 on FS1

 

Natalie Decker not medically cleared for Las Vegas Truck race

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NASCAR announced right before Friday night’s Truck Series race that Natalie Decker hadn’t been medically cleared to compete.

No details were provided about the issue that prevented Decker from being cleared. During the final stage of the race, NASCAR announced she had been treated and released from the infield medical center.

The Niece Motorsports driver would have started 23rd. Due to her No. 44 truck having cleared inspection and having been placed on the starting grid she was credited with a last-place finish.

Decker has made 11 starts this year. She missed the June 28 race at Pocono after she was hospitalized due to bile duct complications related to her gallbladder removal in December.

Brandon Brown hopes to shed underdog role in Xfinity playoffs

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Brandon Brown knows the odds are against him advancing beyond the first round of the Xfinity playoffs.

“If I went out and we did a survey and we asked 1,000 NASCAR fans to create a playoff bracket, I guarantee that 90 to 99 percent of them have me getting eliminated in the first round,” he told NBC Sports.

But that’s not stopping him.

Brown is in the Xfinity playoffs for the first time, earning the final spot last weekend with his family-run team. He enters Saturday’s race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN) last in the 12-driver field. Brown has 2,000 points and is 10 points behind Ross Chastain, who holds the final transfer spot, entering the first round.

MORE: Saturday’s Xfinity race start time, lineup, forecast

Regardless where he is in the standings, Brown still met the team’s preseason goal of making the playoffs.

“It’s hard to put it into words,” the 27-year-old said of making the playoffs. “It’s so exciting and so thrilling. We’re just happy. Life is good. We’re seeing the fruits of our labor.”

Much of the Xfinity playoff focus will be on Chase Briscoe, who enters with a series-high seven wins. Or Austin Cindric, who won the regular-season title. Or Justin Allgaier, who has won three of the last seven races and could be the favorite if he makes it to the championship race at Phoenix Raceway.

Brown, who is in his second full season in the series, has four consecutive top-20 finishes going into this weekend. He knows the challenge he faces.

He said a key for this weekend is to have no mistakes, be running at the end and try to take advantage of any mistakes other playoff drivers have.

Then, he’ll look to Talladega. He’ll have an upgraded Earnhardt Childress Racing engine for that race, the team spending the extra money for the engine upgrade.

“I go into that track with confidence,” he said. “I need to go out there and make it happen, go win and make an name and go ahead and punch my ticket.”

While Brown knows most look at him as the underdog of these playoffs, he hopes to drop that title someday.

“The goal will be to get rid of that underdog title and to build that program that is going to be looked on as a powerhouse of the NASCAR Xfinity Series,” he said. “I enjoy the ride (as underdog), but now I’m ready to advance past it.”

Points entering Xfinity playoffs 

2,050 – Chase Briscoe

2,050 – Austin Cindric

2,033 – Justin Allgaier

2,025 – Noah Gragson

2,020 – Brandon Jones

2,018 – Justin Haley

2,014 – Harrison Burton

2,010 – Ross Chastain

2,002 – Ryan Sieg

2,002 – Michael Annett

2,001 – Riley Herbst

2,000 – Brandon Brown

First Round races

Sept. 26 – Las Vegas Motor Speedway (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN)

Oct. 3 – Talladega Superspeedway (4:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN)

Oct. 10 – Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval (3:30 p.m. ET on NBC)