RELATED: XFINITY 2017 schedule
Granted, it came unexpectedly. Just a month before the start of the season, Tifft thought he would be working with defending series champion Daniel Suarez, but Suarez was promoted to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series when Carl Edwards decided to step away from racing.
Surprise aside, Tifft happily accepts the spotlight of being the only JGR driver chasing the XFINITY championship this season.
"I’ve been waiting for a long time for it," he said with a smile.
Although he missed a majority of the races he was slated for in 2016 following surgery in July to remove a benign brain tumor, Tifft still believes last year prepared him well. In his 10 starts, Tifft earned five top-10 finishes, led 23 laps, and earned his first career pole in the spring at Talladega Superspeedway.
"I thought we started off really well," Tifft said of 2016. "I got through the beginning of the year and what happened happened in the summer, but then towards the end of the year I wanted to come back and prove that I could compete and be competitive, and now I have that chance."
Matt Beckman will be Tifft’s crew chief. Tunity will return to the organization as a primary sponsor on the No. 19 car. Between being impressed with Beckman’s knowledge and the confidence that he’s sitting in the best equipment in the series, Tifft looks at 2017 as a year to grow himself.
"I’ve never run a full season in anything since I got started racing," Tifft said. "I started when I was 12, so I started late. Our thing was always you get good enough to where you’re competitive and jump to the next level, so it’s cool for me to realize that I’m finally at a top level to where we can go and compete for a championship in the best situation possible."
Not having a teammate in the trenches with him each week doesn’t worry Tifft. Suarez, Kyle Busch, and others are still at his disposal. Erik Jones, who also moved to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, is someone who Tifft leans on often. Call it a comfort thing; the two are the same age.
"That’s the neat thing about JGR, everyone wants to help," Tifft said. "It’s just you got to go out and get the help that you need, they’re not going to come to you. Except for on the XFINITY side when we have our teammates there, we’ll have our meetings, our competition meeting, and that’s where we’ll all help each other.
"Now, I don’t know where that aspect will go anymore because I’ll be the only full-time driver, so it’ll be even more on me to get the help that I need, but that’s OK because I’ll get the experience I need from those guys."
Coming off a Suarez championship last year, expectations will remain high at Joe Gibbs Racing. Having watched as Suarez consistently improved throughout last year to where he eventually led the points and was able to capture three series wins while competing for the championship, Tifft’s expectations are to do the same.
"That’s the main thing, and then go get some wins," Tifft said. "The comfort in it is that we can be on our own agenda. We don’t have to worry about anything else because our No. 19 team is in its own zone. We have a different focus than the other guys, so it’s a little bit more unique."