For the past couple of years we have watched Jake “Fireball” Griffin move from field filler, then to race contender. Finally, last season he broke through and started his checkered flag collection.
Griffin, who will race next season as a 14-year-old, should continue his development and move to championship contender in 2013 — in two classes. No, he won’t win a title — well, at least I think he won’t — but he should be a major contender. I think he’ll leave his biggest mark in the modifieds, although his late-season performance in 2012 in the late models was nothing to sneeze at. Of those two classes, the UMP Super Lates should be even stronger than last season, making it that much tougher for a youngster like Griffin — even though he’s talented well beyond his years. (Do you realize there are a few guys whose cars are older than Griffin?)
What is so impressive about the teenager is a combination of his fearlessness and moxie. Watch him some night attack the corners. It’s impressive, and he does so in a fashion he does not take out half the field with him. There’s a fine line between aggressiveness and mayhem, and if you develop a reputation for the latter instead of the former it’s … well, not a good thing.
What we need to guard against is expecting too much from Fireball. It seems like he’s been around forever, yet he’s not even old enough to go to most movies without a parent. Let’s
not forget there will still be nights when he struggles. Even great young talents like Griffin have to endure a learning curve. But unless I miss my guess, he’ll negotiate that learning curve as quickly and easily as he does each of those four turns at the Bullring.
This will be the season we come to realize the level of talent driving that No. 08 car. Sit back and enjoy. In many ways, this should be the summer of Jake Griffin.
Enter the Fireball.
2. Craig Spegal: He’s given us glimpses of his talent in a modified. This season, he should make a run at the track’s elite. And like Griffin, he won’t win a championship, but unless I miss my guess he’ll have a say in who does.
3. Clint Kirkham: He started to turn the corner — both figuratively and literally — in late 2011. Last year there were more positive results. This year? He won’t win the Super Lates title, but a top-five in points is more than possible.
4. Michael Larsen: If someone is going to legitimately challenge Abe Huls and Terry Houston in the stock cars, “Taco” is your man. I’ve said in this space before, a good indication to see who to watch out for the following season is to monitor who won the most heat races the year before. No stock car driver won more heats than Larsen in 2012. He loves racing. He has a good ride. And he’s excited. Larsen is the only driver — outside of Honest Abe the Mayor of Mount Sterling — who (on paper) would seem to have a chance at the series championship. Could he really take the big iron? Why not?
5. Pat Dunker: “The People’s Champion” will be there from the beginning in the sport compacts. Each series needs a “face,” and Dunker could emerge as the matinee idol of the four-cylinders. Oh, and he can drive, too. Hey, he taught his brother, Tony, everything he knows.
COMEBACK DRIVERS OF THE YEAR
1. Jerry Lierly: It’s a shame he suffered the injury last season. We were just starting to get a good look at what he could do in that late model. Jerry could be the sleeper of the year in the track’s marquee class.
2. Keith Pratt: Here’s another driver who should come back strong. The Kool Kat was robbed of most of 2012 due to having to wait on equipment following some early season mishaps. The law of percentages say the breaks should go his way this season.
3. Jim Gillenwater: Call this one a hunch. And if he does come back, there might be a new sheriff in the sport mods.