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Local Sports

NASCAR: Tifft looks for first Xfinity win with playoff berth already in hand

DAYTONA BEACH, FL - FEBRUARY 24:  Matt Tifft, driver of the #19 Tunity Toyota, practices for the NASCAR XFINITY Series PowerShares QQQ 300 at Daytona International Speedway on February 24, 2017 in Daytona Beach, Florida.  (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)
DAYTONA BEACH, FL - FEBRUARY 24: Matt Tifft, driver of the #19 Tunity Toyota, practices for the NASCAR XFINITY Series PowerShares QQQ 300 at Daytona International Speedway on February 24, 2017 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

While several veteran drivers will be sweating things on Saturday to see if they make the cut as one of the 12 qualifiers for NASCAR’s Xfinity Series playoffs, Matt Tifft is happy that he won’t have to deal with that.

The 21-year-old rookie ensured himself of a playoff berth in last weekend’s Virginia529 College Savings 250 at Richmond, so while several others vie for the last three spots, Tifft can set his focus on next weekend’s 300 in Kentucky, which kicks off the series’ initial postseason.

Instead of having to avoid making any serious mistakes during Saturday’s 2:30 p.m. 300 at Chicagoland Speedway, Tifft can take some chances as he tries to become the fifth playoff qualifier in the series to win a race this season.

He joins three other rookies who already are in the field of 12 finalists, of which nine have clinched berths. William Byron leads all drivers with three wins, while the other advancing rookies are Daniel Hemric and Cole Custer.

Other winners who will compete in the playoffs are Justin Allgaier, Ryan Reed, Jeremy Clements and Brennan Poole. And although he hasn’t won a race this year, Elliott Sadler already has wrapped up the regular season

Blake Koch, Michael Annett and Brendan Gaughan are in the best position to advance. Dakoda Armstrong, JJ Yeley, Ross Chastain and Ryan Sieg are next in line, and other than Armstrong, they likely will have to win to advance. Any other first-time winners in the top 20 in points will also make the playoffs.

After competing in 10 Xfinity and 10 Camping World Truck Series races a year ago, Tifft is completing a full series in Xfinity for Joe Gibbs Racing. He’s finished third twice and has four other top-10 finishes this season and still is seeking an elusive first NASCAR victory.

“It’s nice going into Chicago being in a spot where we’re locked in the playoffs and have that going for us,” Tifft said. “This is the kind of race where we can try to play around with some set-ups and maybe make a couple of aggressive strategy calls to try to go win the race. We’ll see how it plays out, but it’s definitely nice to be in a comfortable spot knowing that we have this week to learn from and for it to be the last extreme pressure-free race of the year.”

Tifft is impressed with how well his fellow rookies has performed this season.

“If you look at the rookie of the year standings, William Byron has had an unbelievable start and middle part of the season and I feel like we’ve caught up with him in some ways,” Tifft said. “With Daniel Hemric and Cole Custer, it seems like the three of us are always together every weekend. We’re all trying to play catch-up a little with Byron, but it’s been a really good year. The part that’s kind of missing for us is to get that win and to try to be able to compete for the wins on the mile and a halves. That’s one thing we’re looking to do in the playoffs.”

And Tifft likes the challenges of competing on the track at Chicagoland Speedway.

“The good thing is that Chicago has always been a good track for me and hopefully that proves true again this weekend,” Tifft said. “The really neat thing about it is that it’s one of our few tracks left of the mile and a halves that haven’t been repaved. When tracks are like that, they’re a lot of fun because you have big bumps, big tire falloff and you can use multiple lanes, so there’s a lot more options for drivers. It’s always a challenge since the bumps get worse every year because you guys have terrible winters up there.”

He’s also appreciative of being able to compete for an organization like Joe Gibbs Racing.

“Whenever you’re a young driver, you always want to be with the best organizations and obviously, JGR is one of those top-tier organizations,” Tifft said. “It teaches you a lot when you’re driving for someone like that because you see how a big team works with meetings, driver analysis and working with pit crews and practice is relatively new when you’re not totally used to that. You want to be with a team like that for the rest of your career, so the more that you take advantage ad learn from it, it’s going to help you in the long run.”

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