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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.”

Martin Truex Jr., Matt Kenseth to start at rear at Kentucky

Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images
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Martin Truex Jr. and Matt Kenseth each will start at the rear in Sunday’s Cup race at Kentucky Speedway after their cars failed pre-race inspection twice.

Truex was to have started ninth. Kenseth was to have started 17th in the 38-car field.

Truex has won two of the last three races at Kentucky. Kenseth is coming off a runner-up finish last weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Sunday’s Cup race at Kentucky: Start time, lineup and more

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The final 10-race stretch of the regular season begins for the Cup Series Sunday at Kentucky Speedway.

After years of mostly only racing under the lights there, the series will race in the daytime.

Can Kyle Busch, who starts from the pole, earn his first Cup win of 2020?

Here’s all the info you need for Sunday’s race:

(All times are Eastern)

START:  The command to start engines is at 2:43 p.m. The green flag is scheduled to wave at 2:54 p.m.

PRERACE: Garage access health screening begins at 7:30 a.m. (teams are assigned specific times). Engine prime and final adjustments at 12:30 p.m. Drivers report to their cars at 2:20 p.m. The invocation will be given at 2:35 p.m by Darrell and Stevie Waltrip. The national anthem will be performed at 2:36 p.m. by Robert Randolph.

DISTANCE: The race is 267 laps (400.5 miles) around the 1.5-mile speedway.

COMPETITION CAUTION: Lap 25

STAGES: Stage 1 ends on Lap 80. Stage 2 ends on Lap 160.

TV/RADIO: FS1 will televise the race. Coverage begins at 2:30 p.m. Performance Racing Network’s radio coverage will begin at 1:30 p.m. and also can be heard at goprn.com. SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will carry the broadcast.

FORECAST: The wunderground.com forecast calls for scattered thunderstorms with a high of 79 degrees and a 58% chance of rain at the start of the race.

LAST RACE: Kevin Harvick beat Matt Kenseth to win the Brickyard 400.

LAST RACE AT KENTUCKY: Kurt Busch defeated younger brother Kyle Busch for the win.

STARTING LINEUP: Click here for the starting lineup.

Catch up on NBC Sports’ coverage:

Front Row Motorsports reaching new heights without practice

NASCAR to team: Address “complacency” toward COVID-19 protocols

Jimmie Johnson: ‘I’m smarter, stronger’ after COVID-19 episode

Stage is set for Cup teams in race for points

Glow in the dark: Cup cars get new look for All-Star Race

Here is what upcoming NASCAR Cup races fans can attend

NASCAR reveals schedule through end of Cup regular season

Harvick takes hot streak to Kentucky, one of his last winless tracks

Power Rankings after Indianapolis: Kevin Harvick back to No. 1

Zach Price, Ryan Blaney’s injured tire changer, to miss Kentucky

 

Racing community mourns driver killed after crash at Langley Speedway

Photo: Mark Wertz
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Shawn Balluzzo, an 11-time track champion at Langley Speedway, died after a crash in a modified race Saturday night, the track confirmed. Balluzzo was 64.

Balluzzo, who won 16 of the Hampton, Virginia track’s 17 modified races in 2019, died after his car went over the hood of another and hit the Turn 2 wall at about 70 mph, according to The Virginian-Pilot. The newspaper reported that safety personnel cut the roof of Balluzzo’s car off to extricate him.

Saturday’s twin modified races were the first of the season for that series at the track. Belluzzo finished second in the opening race.

Balluzzo and his daughter Bryce were featured last year by WAVY TV 10, which chronicled Bryce’s battle with leukemia.

 

Tributes to Shawn Balluzzo were abundant Sunday morning and came from throughout the racing community.

 

Cole Custer ready for encore of first career Cup top-5 finish

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Sunday’s Cup race at Kentucky Speedway will be a night and day difference.

In recent years, the Cup race at the 1.5-mile Sparta, Kentucky track has primarily been a nighttime affair. Teams have compiled big notebooks of data from racing under the lights.

That won’t be the case Sunday, as the green flag is slated to drop at 2:54 p.m. ET.

While this will be his first career Cup start at Kentucky, rookie Cole Custer is no stranger to the track, having won last summer’s Xfinity race there – and scored consecutive fifth-place finishes in the two preceding races in 2017 and 2018.

“It’s something that you definitely see a difference in the track, I feel like, when it’s day and when it goes to night,” Custer said in a media teleconference. “So trying to figure out how you want to adjust your car to kind of a slicker track is gonna be pretty important.

“And also the biggest difference is we don’t have all the practice sessions before the race to work in the track. You saw that Thursday night with the Xfinity race, there was dust all over. The bottom lane was not worked in very well, so it’s gonna take a little while for that bottom lane to work in. We’re gonna see how worked in it is by the time we get to our race.

“There’s a lot of differences, honestly, but, at the same time it’s still the same track. It’s a really edgy racetrack because it’s new pavement, it’s a repave, so the tires are a little bit harder. The track takes a little bit of time to get worked in and you have that PJ1 (traction compound), so you’re able to take things from the Xfinity car – what lines kind of worked there and how it changed throughout the weekend – so basic characteristics with the track you’re able to kind of carry over. But at the same time, the feel in the car is completely different and how you work traffic and things like that.”

Custer enters Sunday’s race ranked 25th in the Cup standings, the lowest position of the four major drivers in this year’s Cup rookie class (Tyler Reddick is 18th, John Hunter Nemechek is 22nd and Christopher Bell is 24th).

“There’s definitely been a lot of learning, for sure,” Custer said. “Obviously, these cars are a lot different than what the Xfinity cars were, so trying to wrap your head around that and figure out how to effect every little thing, whether it’s passing or restarts or how to work traffic or pit road, just anything about it, you’re trying to make sure you’re getting 100 percent out of it.

“It’s always going to be challenging being a rookie, but at the same time it’s probably been a little bit more challenging this year because you don’t have practice, we didn’t have rookie testing, and these cars are a big difference from the Xfinity Series. It’s hard to do that without the practice time.

“I think it pushes all of us to be better because we all want to compete against each other and make sure we’re not falling behind too much. I think it’s just a matter of you still have to focus on yourself most of the time. If you’re focused on other people, you’re not gonna be making yourself better and working on your own problems. But at the same time it does push you to make sure you’re pushing yourself as much as you can.”

Custer is coming off his first top-five finish of the season at Indianapolis last weekend. He  has just one other top 10 in the first 16 races.

Still, Custer’s finish at Indy, which included pushing Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Kevin Harvick to the win, leaves Custer optimistic heading into this weekend.

“At that point, my best shot was to push Kevin and that might have got me in a better position to try and maybe make a move to try to win the race also,” Custer said. “It’s definitely nerve-wracking. I mean, you’re coming to that line and you’re like, ‘I’ve got to do this right. This is important right here. We need this.’

“So I’ve been in those situations before where you’ve got to push people if you’re running up front in the Xfinity cars or the Truck Series or whatever it is, so you have experience doing that kind of stuff, but doing it at this level puts that much more pressure on it and you’re at the Brickyard 400 so you want to make it happen. It was definitely nerve-wracking, but it was something that we were able to kind of control those nerves and make sure that we do our jobs right.

“Now I feel like we’re at a good point where we’re putting it all together and get close to affect all those little things. But you have to do it on a consistent basis and I think we’re gaining on that.”

The driver of the No. 41 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford Mustang has his work cut out for himself Sunday, starting 29th.

“I feel like I’ve already spent hours trying to figure that out,” Custer quipped. “It’s definitely gonna be a tough race.

“It looks like it’s gonna be a really dominant top lane kind of race, so that makes it a little bit tough to pass. But at the same time, the track is gonna be changing throughout the whole weekend, so it’s hard to tell exactly what our race is gonna be like yet.

“You’re trying to work through all the different possibilities in your mind of what our race might look like. But overall I feel like it’s gonna be a track position race. You’re gonna want to try to get towards the front on restarts and on pit road, and from there you’re just trying to run a solid race without having mistakes.”

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