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.”

BJ McLeod, Live Fast team move to Chevrolet

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Driver/owner BJ McLeod and Live Fast Motorsports will race in Chevrolets beginning with the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series season.

Based in Mooresville, North Carolina, Live Fast has been a Ford team.

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Live Fast is owned by McLeod, Matt Tifft and Joe Falk. Jessica McLeod, BJ’s wife, is the team’s chief operating officer.

“Our team is excited to make this transition to Chevrolet,” BJ McLeod said in a statement released by the team. “Chevrolet Camaros have proven great success on the track, and Live Fast Motorsports is looking forward to becoming a part of this advance.”

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The team will use ECR engines.

McLeod had one top-10 finish in 29 starts in the Cup Series last season.

Dr Diandra: Delving deeper into 2022 NASCAR season statistics

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As I discovered earlier this year, cautions don’t capture everything. Sometimes drivers spin, crash, lose wheels or blow tires, but racing continues. Cautions are inaccurate proxies for counting these incidents.

Improving accuracy requires re-visiting each race in detail to find those incidents that didn’t produce cautions.

So that’s what I did.

Non-caution incidents

I use the same categories for non-caution incidents as for cautions. Only incidents significant enough to cost drivers spots count, regardless of where in the field they happen. I don’t claim to have found every incident, but I think I caught most of them.

The table below summarizes my counts for caution and non-caution incidents in the 2022 Cup Series.

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Non-caution incidents comprise 30.1% of total incidents. The percentages, however, vary widely within categories.

For example: While non-caution accidents are just 14% of all accidents, non-caution spins are almost 40% of the total spin count.

Non-caution incidents by race

The graph below shows total incidents — caution and non-caution. I show the races in chronological order from left to right. The totals do not include planned cautions.

The largest number of non-caution incidents happen at road courses. These tracks’ length and sprawling nature allow drivers to recover from a spin or accident without drawing a caution.

  • The Indy road course had the highest overall number of non-caution incidents — nine spins, six accidents and one car on fire. That comes to a total of 16 non-caution incidents and three natural cautions.
  • COTA had the second-highest total of non-caution incidents with 13 — two accidents, nine spins, one tire issue and one wheel issue. Seven natural cautions bring COTA’s incident total to 20.
  • Bristol’s asphalt race came in third in total incidents. Although all of the accidents, spins and stalls recorded there caused cautions, six tire issues and five wheel issues did not. Bristol wins the award for most non-caution incidents at an oval.

Road courses accounted for one-third of all spins in 2022. Capturing total spins is important because spins indicate how easy it is to lose control of the car.

The first third of the season tallied 34 spins. The number rose to 40 in the second third, but fell to 25 in the last 12 races of the year. The numbers from the first two-thirds of the season included 10 spins each at COTA and the Indy Road Course.

The strong dependence of spins on track type makes it hard to draw a conclusion about whether drivers improved their ability to manage the car during the year.

Tires blown

The Next Gen’s symmetry makes the car harder to turn, which demands more from the tires. Crew chiefs also gained the ability to adjust rear camber. Goodyear reported force spikes of 200 to 300 pounds in the tires. Force spikes load a tire quickly, which can lead to blowouts.

I only counted situations in which it was clear that the tire went flat before any other incident, like a spin or accident. If it was possible that another incident caused the tire to blow, I didn’t include it as a tire issue.

I counted a total of 59 blown tires in the 2022 season, which includes those that caused cautions and those that didn’t.

Teams used around 26,600 tires this season. The 59 tire failures represent about 0.2% of all tires run.

Christopher Bell and Austin Cindric had the most blown tires with five each. Bell’s teammate Martin Truex Jr. had four. Tyler Reddick, Ryan Blaney, Chase Briscoe and Daniel Suarez each had three.

Joe Gibbs Racing’s four cars totaled 13 blown tires or 22% of the total number. Hendrick Motorsports, with the same number of cars, had eight blown tires, while Stewart Haas Racing had only six.

The Bristol asphalt race had the most tire issues, with 13. Texas came in second with eight and Kansas third with five. Atlanta, which was repaved and reconfigured, had six tire issues across its two races.

The number of tire issues at Kansas decreased from five in the first race to two in the second. I expect the overall numbers to go down next year as crew chiefs use what they’ve learned this year to refine their setups.

Wheels lost

The Next Gen’s single-lug wheel challenged pit crews, despite built-in indicators that confirm when a wheel is properly tightened. I counted 13 times cars had to back up on pit road to deal with a loose wheel and 19 times cars pitted right after a tire change to re-tighten wheels.

The four-race suspension for crew chief and pit crew members makes teams extra cautious.

I counted 14 wheels coming off cars during the 2022 season. Seven merited cautions. The remaining seven either happened on pit road, or a car that lost a wheel on track was able to make it back to pit road.

Fourteen wheels is 0.05% of all tires used. Again, this number reflects human error more than any design flaw in the wheels. More concerning to me are the handful of stops where teams couldn’t get wheels off cars. For example, debris between the wheel and hub at Darlington ended up costing Ross Chastain four laps.

The good news is that fewer wheels left cars as the season went on.

  • Eight wheels came off cars in the first third of the season.
  • Four wheels were lost in the second third of the season.
  • Only two wheels failed to stay on in the final third of the season.

As is the case for most statistics in the first year of a new car, these numbers will become more meaningful next year, when they’ll serve as benchmarks.

Goodyear renews agreement to remain NASCAR tire supplier

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NASCAR and Goodyear have entered into a new multi-year agreement maintaining Goodyear’s role as the exclusive tire for NASCAR’s top three national series. 

Goodyear also will be the title sponsor for the Cup race at Darlington Raceway in May 2023. Goodyear and NASCAR’s relationship dates back nearly 70 years and is one of the longest-running affiliations in any sport.

“From our manufacturing plants to offices around the world, racing is ingrained in our culture, and the importance of our relationship with NASCAR is reflected in the quality, performance and engineering we put into every Goodyear Eagle race tire,” said Richard J. Kramer, chairman, chief executive officer and president at Goodyear, in a statement. “Our performance on the racetrack plays an active role in the success of the sport and inspires the development of our consumer tires, fueling our commitment to take performance and innovation to the next level.”

Goodyear produces more than 100,000 tires for NASCAR’s top three series each year at Goodyear’s global headquarters in Akron, Ohio.

“Goodyear has been a trusted partner to the NASCAR industry since 1954, playing a critical role in our shared pursuit to deliver the best racing in the world,” said Steve Phelps, president of NASCAR, in a statement. “For more than 25 years, Goodyear Eagle tires have been the only component that connects the stock car to the racetrack. Our continued partnership will allow us to push boundaries and innovate our racing product for generations to come.”  

Jes Ferreira selected as Comcast Community Champion of the Year

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Comcast announced Jes Ferreira as the 2022 Comcast Community Champion of the Year Award, the eighth to receive the annual award. Among all the turmoil of the pandemic, Ferreira looked for an opportunity to give back. Despite her heavy workload, she decided to take on an even heavier challenge, becoming a foster parent to two young girls. 

“I am overwhelmed, humbled, and blown away to be recognized as the Comcast Community Champion of the Year,” said Jes Ferreira, 2022 Comcast Community Champion, “the amount of support this will provide for the Charlotte foster families ensures the best services for these children. I hope this sheds light on the foster community and encourages everyone to support in many different ways.” 

Ferreira, originally earned a foster license to become a foster parent for one child, but a few months later, the child’s younger sibling needed a new foster home. Although Ferreira, Senior Director of Live Shows for CSM Production, already had a crazy work schedule which included traveling to the race track most weekends on top of fostering one child as a single parent, she knew without a doubt these two siblings deserved to be together while in foster care. Now two young siblings who are going through the most trying time in their lives have been reunited thanks to Ferreira. 

On any given day, there are nearly 424,000 children in foster care in the United States. In 2019, over 672,000 children spent time in U.S. foster care. On average, children remain in state care for over a year and a half, and five percent of children in foster care have languished there for five or more years.  

Ferreira’s affiliated charity is Foster Village Charlotte (FVC), an organization that allows foster parents to connect with and support each other. FVC collaborates with 16 private foster parent licensing agencies, local government, child welfare organizations and the community to serve families holistically and represent the foster family voice to Mecklenburg County Department of Social Services (DSS). 

To further honor Jes’ incredible dedication, Comcast will donate $60,000 to Foster Village Charlotte (FVC).

“Jes encompasses everything the Comcast Community Champion of the Year stands for. Anyone that is at the track knows how dedicated Jes is to the sport of NASCAR and, we are so glad we expanded the eligibility for this award so we can uncover and honor the compassion, selflessness and generosity Jes provides off the track, and that is what makes this honor so special, ” said Matt Lederer, Comcast’s Vice President, Brand Partnerships and Amplification.  

 Ferreira, was chosen by a panel comprised of Comcast and NASCAR executives, as well as Curtis Francois, the 2021 Comcast Community Champion, who received the award for his work with the Raceway Gives Foundation 

For the first time, Comcast opened the eligibility for anyone in the NASCAR community with a 2022 annual credential or NASCAR full season license, and with this expansion, Comcast is now able to share these exceptional stories.   

Josh Williams, driver of the #92 DGM Racing car for the NASCAR Xfinity Series and Sherry Pollex, founder of Sherry Strong, were selected as finalists and will be awarded $30,000 each towards their respective selected charities – the Ryan Seacrest Foundation and Sherry Strong. 

Comcast has a long track record of community service, aiding in the advancement of local organizations, developing programs and partnerships, mobilizing resources to connect people and inspiring positive and substantive change. To learn more about these efforts, visit the Comcast Community Impact site. 

About Comcast Corporation’s Partnership with NASCAR 

Comcast’s Xfinity brand entered NASCAR as entitlement partner of the NASCAR Xfinity Series in 2015 and is now Premier Partner of the NASCAR Cup Series. Since then, the company has donated $840,000 to more than 20 different NASCAR-affiliated organizations to honor their efforts and to help further the impact of their worthy causes. Fans can visit ComcastCommunityChampion.com to learn more about past and present finalists and their acts of selflessness.