Matt Tifft thought he was sitting on top of the racing world -- or at least close to it -- as a driver supposedly guaranteed for 13 NASCAR XFINITY Series starts for Joe Gibbs Racing last year.
Then he learned there are no guarantees. Not in racing -- and not in life.
Just a few weeks after registering back-to-back eighth-place finishes at Talladega (where he started from the pole) and Dover, Tifft learned the source of nagging back pains and headaches that he had been experiencing.
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After undergoing an MRI, doctors located a half-dollar-sized mass underneath his right temple. After a biopsy, it was diagnosed as a low-grade glioma -- a benign brain tumor that needed to be removed as quickly as possible.
"Starting 2016, I really thought we were riding a high of great momentum and things were really starting to fall into place," Tifft said. "When I first got pulled out of the car, my first question was, 'Can't we wait until November and do the operation then?'
"Then you think about it for a few hours and you're like, 'No, that's not possible. I've got to take care of myself first and this part will take care of itself, however this plays out.' "
It ended up playing out about as well or even better than might have been expected.
The surgery, performed last July 1, was successful. Less than two months later, Tifft was back in a JGR car, finishing fifth in an XFINITY race at Kentucky in late September.
"Anybody who goes through something like I did with a brain operation or really any serious medical condition, there are times when you wonder if things will ever get back to normal," Tifft admitted Wednesday at the NASCAR preseason media tour in Charlotte, North Carolina. "I always had it in the back of my mind that I was going to get back into racing and get back into NASCAR. I used that as my motivation to get back.
"Now the timing of when I would get back, I didn't know if it was going to be a few weeks, I didn't know if it was going to be months. The only thing I knew was that I needed to use every resource possible that I had available to re-strengthen my brain however I could -- and just to get myself in position to get back into the race car."
He scored two more top-10 finishes in a total of three additional starts to close the 2016 season, which was enough, along with a clean bill of health, for JGR to put him in a full-time XFINITY ride for this season.
Tifft was JGR's choice to replace Daniel Suarez in the No. 19 Toyota full-time after Suarez replaced Carl Edwards in the No. 19 at the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series level.
"I'm doing great," Tifft said. "It's awesome to be able to look forward to 2017 in full health and without having to worry about any of that. Just get rolling and get racing. That's the best thing out of all of this."
Tifft, 20, said he still has to get checked out by doctors every eight weeks for now. But the time between checkups will gradually lengthen as long as everything continues to look fine.
In the meantime, he said he looks forward to getting back to building on a promising career as a racer -- and telling his comeback story to anyone willing to listen.
"We really don't know too much about brain tumors as a society," he said. "You hear about other diseases and you hear that there is this resource here and this doctor and they'll know what to do.
"It's different with a brain tumor. There is a stigma that it's a death sentence. There's a stigma that it's a very bad thing and that your life is over. I want to be an advocate of brain tumor awareness."
He said he ran into a young fan at Kentucky Speedway who was facing a similar procedure as his, and that he enjoyed being able to provide some encouraging words. That's the sort of thing he hopes to continue doing for the remainder of his life.
All while racing, of course.
"Being able to look now at 2017 and not having to worry about that, having it completely in the past and not be paranoid about it, just makes everything that much more sweet to get to this point," he said.
(Editor's note: Take a look behind the scenes at the 2017 Charlotte Motor Speedway Media Tour with the official NASCAR on FOX Instagram story.)