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Graduation Day: Gragson, Tifft moving on with full-time rides

RELATED: NASCAR Next Class of 2016-17 | Complete coverage

As this year’s incoming NASCAR Next members go through their orientation paperwork, two young drivers in the outgoing class will have a quiet graduation of sorts.

No caps, gowns or turning of the tassel, but Noah Gragson and Matt Tifft have fulfilled one of the prime goals of the sport’s youth initiative. Both Gragson and Tifft have since earned full-time rides in one of NASCAR’s three national series.

Gragson, 18, competes full time for Kyle Busch Motorsports in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, and Tifft, 20, has found a home with Joe Gibbs Racing in the NASCAR XFINITY Series. Those transitions — commencement ceremony or not — mean that both bid a fond farewell to the Next initiative.

“Being a part of 11 individuals from the ages of 15 to 25 all across the world, to be picked for that group, man it’s a real honor,” Gragson said last month at Martinsville Speedway, site of his first top-five finish in the Truck Series. “I’m just real thankful everything worked out. NASCAR Next is a really great program and I learned a lot, more so with the off-track stuff — how to brand myself, how to carry myself. So I’m just very happy to be part of that NASCAR Next group and to be an alumnus of that now.”

MORE: Go behind the scenes with this year’s class

Gragson’s initial steps into the national ranks come after two stellar campaigns in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West, with four total wins and finishes of second and third in the season-long points standings. That was enough to impress Toyota Racing and team owner Kyle Busch, who plucked the fellow Las Vegas native for the seat of his No. 18 Tundra.

Tifft’s journey was more roundabout. He already had made his first forays into Truck and XFINITY competition by the time he was tapped to be a part of the 2016-17 class. But just six weeks after the announcement, Tifft underwent surgery July 1 to remove a brain tumor that had grown in his skull over a period of six to eight years. The recovery and rehabilitation sidelined him until September.

“There wasn’t too much I could do,” Tifft said with a shrug late last month at Richmond International Raceway. “I wanted to be back in the car, and I argued with the doctors enough, but then I figured out within a few hours that it’s a stupid thing to do. Instead of trying to get back in the race car, I needed to get other things fixed.”

That personal setback gave him needed perspective — “I matured quickly … in about an hour,” he said through laughter — and a redefined purpose that includes advocating for the American Brain Tumor Association. Tifft says he still receives regular follow-ups with doctors, but that his readjustment period from his procedure is nearly complete.

With his ailment behind him, Tifft joins Gragson in making the next step in his NASCAR career. Both take with them a wealth of memories, lasting camaraderie and a legacy from their time in NASCAR Next.

“When you’re in the mix with some of those guys, you know that they’re some of the most talented up-and-coming drivers in our industry,” Tifft said. “There’s a lot you can learn even from some of the younger guys. There’s some really talented people in the class, and I think you see the results of that from the guys in the Cup Series — Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott — guys like that who are just dominating our sport right now and came through the Next program.

“Obviously, there’s a lot of big names that have come out of it, so you just try to prove yourself as a part of that group.”