Front Row Motorsports wheelman Matt Tifft is speaking from Darlington Raceway in South Carolina.
“We’ve shown some speed and have been racing with guys that have much bigger budgets then we do, but you just have to make a switch at some point and be aggressive and show your worth out there and I think we’ve been able to do that.”
Well into his rookie season in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, 23 year-old Tifft currently slots in at 31st in points. Having run and finished in the top 20 to 30 throughout the last 24 Cup starts, Tifft has impressed the community with his consistency, racing attitude and professionalism. On the eve of the Bojangles’ Southern 500 – a race where he’ll run in a throwback livery inspired by his father and Michigan Motorsports Hall of Famer named David Hilliker – we caught up with him.
Q: The Southern 500 throwback race is upon us. How do you feel about the weekend?
MATT TIFFT: Yeah, it’s been good. We’ve had an off weekend, which is really nice on the Cup Series side because we don’t get too many of those. I got to enjoy that. Now we’re at Darlington, which is good and not too far from home. I get to come home and stay at the house this weekend. That’s pretty cool in itself. But yeah, this weekend is definitely cool with the NASCAR throwback race. It’s such a special deal for the entire industry. All the different cars and paint schemes and everything you see there is really cool. It’s a great event to be a part of. I got to do it the last couple of years on the Xfinity side, but to do it on the Cup side this weekend is going to be fantastic.
Q: Your car will feature the livery your father Quinten Tifft and Dirt Late Model legend David Hilliker made famous in the Midwest. A unique design, huh?
MT: Yes, it’s based off a Dirt Late Model my dad owned and a friend of his drove. That’s kind of where I got my interest in racing, and that’s why it’s pretty special to have the scheme on the car this weekend too. I’m excited to see it on track.
Q: How did you guys come up with the idea to go with Tifft and Hilliker scheme?
MT: We kind of looked at previous paint schemes that No. 36 had driven back in historic days. The hard part with the 36 is that the number doesn’t have that long of a history. When you really look at it all, it’s only Ernie Irvin and Ken Schrader, and both of those cars were sponsored by Mars, the candy company, so we were kind of up against Skittles and M&Ms cars. Kyle Busch has that sponsor now, so they’ve actually got that covered. We thought, “Well, we better go look at some other options.” We really couldn’t find anything that was great. We just kind of thought what we came up with would be a cool one to do this weekend. I was able to make the choice on that, so that was pretty neat.
Q: 2019 has been marked your first year with Front Row Motorsports, as well as rookie season in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. Twenty-four races into the season, what’s your take been?
MT: Yeah, the last month or two has definitely been a lot better for consistency. That’s a hard thing to come by, especially this year with it being a brand new package. It’s totally different from any other year that we’ve experienced with the type of racing and everything else that goes on in Cup. That was all brand new to us. Not only for myself, but for the entire race team. We had to look at what kind of package we wanted to run and the things that we wanted to do. That was hard for the entire group, and for the organization, especially for as a small team, we struggled out of the gate. Lately, though, I feel like we’re closer to where we should be and we’ve been getting some better results. But yeah, it has definitely been a learning experience, but I feel like I’m in a spot where I’m more comfortable now and I’m just really enjoying getting to be out there with 40 of the best drivers in the country.
Q: How do you find racing with these guys at the Cup level. I’ve heard you say that you have to be very aggressive and fight for every position, but you also have to earn the respect from all of the other veteran drivers. A fine line?
MT: Yeah, it is. Especially when you start the season. You’re kind of tip-toeing because you don’t want to make anybody mad. It’s that kind of deal. Then you get halfway through the season and you’re like, “Alright, I need to ratchet it up a notch,” because if you don’t they’re just going to plan on driving over you and use you as a pick, and that’s not what you want to do and you get that reputation. You have to fight back in there and be aggressive. It certainly is a fine line. There’s a switch point somewhere in there and I think we’ve hit that switch point now. It’s kind of funny. It’s just that different mentality at some point in the season.
Q: You’re currently 31st in Cup series points and your race results have hovered in the 20th to 30th place range. Considering budgets and what the Front Row Motorsports team has to offer up, that’s not bad at all.
MT: Yeah, for us a top 25 is a good day. A top 20 is a great day. Our average finish is getting closer to that top 25 mark. Really, for us, I think we’ve been fairly happy lately, but there have been a few lost opportunities. At the last race at Bristol we were running 23rd and then unfortunately had something break with 10 laps to go and I finished 27th there. With a different strategy play or if things would have happened a little bit differently, we’d have been looking at the top 20 there. There are just little things we’ve got to clean up on to execute and get those top 20s. That’s kind of what the focus is the rest of the year – we want to get as many of those top 20 finishes as possible Really, those are the big days for us. And we also got that top 10 down at Daytona in July. That was a huge deal for the team so you want to celebrate those good days too.
Q: How has it all been with Front Row Motorsports and team owner Bob Jenkins? Jenkins has appeared to be real positive on you in the media.
MT: The good thing is that I have pretty good teachers and honest teammates in David Ragan and Michael McDowell. They’ve worked with me a lot, and I think the benchmark you look at sometimes is where we run compared to my two teammates because they’ve veterans, and they’ve been around with that team in NASCAR. You sometimes base yourself off of them to see if you’re doing good or not, because sometimes it’s the best judge of your equipment because it’s identical to what you’re running against them. The good and bad thing is, I guess, is that we’ve all been right by each other in the races. The bad thing is we all wish that was a little further ahead of where we’ve ran this year.
Q: What’s your plan for the rest of the season?
MT: First of all would be those top 20 finishes. I think I have 12 races left here and getting some legit top 15 finishes would be really big for us. Michael McDowell, he’s gotten one or two of them now that were top 15 finishes. David Ragan took a 14th place finish. We had some good runs in there, but we want to go have finish in the teens on a non-plate track that we can kind of feel good about for the rest of the year.
Q: Will you be back with Front Row Motorsports in 2020?
MT: We‘re still trying to hash some details out. The whole deal coincides with sponsorship, fortunately and unfortunately. I’m still trying to get those things figured out, but I certainly enjoy being with them and hopefully everything continues that way.