Matt Tifft knew entering this year’s NASCAR XFINITY Series season, it would take some time to get familiar with the car and tracks, along with crew chief Matt Beckman. Everything is coming together, though, as he scored his first top-10 of 2017 a couple of weeks ago at Texas Motor Speedway.
“I think so far we’ve had a lot of positives come out of our races,” he told POPULAR SPEED. “We haven’t had the finishes we wanted every week, but I thought Texas was a big step in the right direction for us getting our first top-10 as a team. The other races we should’ve finished there but didn’t end up sealing the deal. So that was a big baby step for us.”
He now hopes to carry the momentum into this weekend’s Fitzgerald Glider Kits 300 at Bristol Motor Speedway. With rain in the forecast, Tifft admits one of his initial concerns is a possible lack of practice.
“I got to race there last spring, so luckily I do have a little track experience,” he said. “Bristol is a fun race, but always very intense too, so it’s a little bit unpredictable; you have to be very much up on the wheel there. It’s always a little crazy.”
This weekend marks a significant opportunity as Bristol is one of the four Dash for Cash events this season, following Phoenix Raceway in March.
“It’s great that XFINITY puts that on for the series; it’s a chance for some of the younger drivers to shine with those races and having Richmond the week after for two in a row, so you have to be able to capitalize on those races,” he said. “Short track races are where a lot of us young guys come from. So being able to perform there where you don’t have as many seasoned Cup guys in there, it gives you a little bit of a better chance to have a good run in the finishing positions. But, it’s a cool program that we get to do, and it’s great to have a partner in the series that allows us to go out and compete for a $100,000, which is a pretty neat opportunity that not all series have.”
Tifft has run a pair of races at Bristol previously, finishing 23rd in last year’s XFINITY event for JGL Racing, and ninth in the K&N Pro Series East in 2014. He will be racing this weekend’s K&N Pro Series East event, as well.
“Anytime you go to a track and have laps there and know how it generally races, it’s a huge help,” he said. “Part of the beginning of the 2017 season was going to tracks that I’ve never been to before in an XFINITY car before. When you have that experience from the past, it’s nice to be able to have some sort of an idea of how to get around cars, and how the race will generally play out. It’s a more comfortable feeling going into that event.”
The Joe Gibbs Racing driver feels more top-10s are just on the horizon, with him and Beckman getting used to each other. Beckman got promoted to Tifft’s crew chief after serving as Denny Hamlin’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series engineer in 2016.
“I think the big thing is just being able to adapt to track changes,” he said. “We have a different downforce package this year, which is not too crazy. But I think the biggest thing is understanding what when I say some number of a change that I need in the car or giving feedback, just for him to give an adjustment that’s not too much or too little.”
The Chemistry, combined with track familiarity compared to the first seven races this season have Tifft confident.
“There’s so much that goes into competing for wins in this series, and I feel like we’re getting really close to being able to do that,” he said. “You have to build from somewhere, and I felt that Texas was great for us to build from a solid run. You have to have that as a team to build everybody’s confidence up, and to be able to keep on rolling through the next stretch here. As you know, we have a couple weeks here and then a few weeks off, but after that, there are 20 something weeks in a row, and you better be hitting it by then.”
He also knows improvement needs to continue behind the wheel, as seen by his restarts already this year.
“They weren’t that great at the beginning of the season,” he said. “I feel I’m getting to a point where I’m competitive with them as at Texas, they were solid all day long. There’s definitely things fundamentally as a driver I am getting better at.
“One of the things that I feel we need to get better at, not necessarily for a top-10 finish, but being able to capitalize on stage points, and running better early in the race, and getting better qualifying runs as well. That just sets you up so much better than having to fight back and some of our races this year, we’ve been a little bit off on handling in the first stage and had to play strategy cards to be in a position in the third stage to go for a top-10. But you’re kind of putting yourself in a few bad spots there. So we have to minimize that, and I have to minimize mistakes as a driver.”
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