Charlie Watson will be looking for some success on his home track of Hickory Motor Speedway as the CARS Tour heads there for the first time this season. Jaden Austin Photo

The first three races of the 2018 CARS Response Energy Late Model Stock Car Tour season have featured intense, competitive racing throughout the field, along with an even mixture of rookies and veterans finding their way to the front. Bobby McCarty kicked off the season by winning $10,000 in the Do the Dew 150 at Tri-County Motor Speedway, while Late Model veterans Lee Pulliam and Deac McCaskill secured victories at Myrtle Beach Speedway and Orange County Speedway, respectively.

The fourth race of the season will take the CARS Response Energy LMSC Tour drivers to Hickory Motor Speedway, which has been one of the staples of the series since its inception in 2015. During the series’ lifespan, Hickory has produced some of the best races in CARS Tour history, including a three-way battle for the lead between Justin Carroll, Austin McDaniel and Anthony Alfredo in last year’s Throwback 276, as well as the 2016 Cloer Construction 300, which holds the series record for most lead changes in a race with 11 in total.

The 2018 edition of the Cloer Construction 300 already boasts an impressive entry list for the CARS Response Energy LMSC Tour, with familiar names such as McCarty, Pulliam, and Berry all expected to battle it out for the win on Saturday evening. Lenoir, North Carolina native Charlie Watson is also on the preliminary entry list as part of his expanded schedule that includes joining the series’ Touring 12 program and hopes to turn in a strong performance at his home track after narrowly securing the track championship in 2017.

“We had that championship won at Hickory last year until we got wrecked with about two races to go,” Watson said. “I’ve been racing at Hickory for a while now, and I decided that I wanted to travel around and see other tracks, but I knew that we would have to get to work in order to get better.”

After racing Street Stocks for several years, Watson began to branch out into Late Models when he made his debut in the Southeast Limited Late Model Series in 2015, where he earned a career-best finish of 16th across three starts. Watson also made select appearances in the Paramount Kia Big 10 Challenge over the next two years, where he earned three Top 5s, including a victory at Hickory in 2017.

Watson made his debut in Hickory’s Late Model division during the 2016 season, where he immediately found success by picking up seven Top 5 finishes and a win during his first season. Watson improved upon his performance during the 2017 season, as he won nine out of the 32 races he competed in, and finished in the Top 10 in all but one race, which placed him 10th in the North Carolina State Championship of the Whelen All-American Series.

Watson also made a one-off appearance in the CARS Response Energy LMSC Tour during the 2016 season at Tri-County, where he finished 14th after being involved in a multi-car accident on the final lap of the race. Watson returned to Tri-County for the 2018 CARS Response Energy Tour season opener hoping to pursue a championship but found himself faced with an immediate setback when he failed to qualify for the race.

“The first race of the year was out of our hands,” Watson said. “We broke a rear-end during the last practice at Tri-County, and to be honest, I was just trying to make the race for points. I consider Tri-County my other home track, and I’ve won a lot of races there, and it’s a shame we didn’t make the race.”

The following race at Myrtle Beach Speedway would also prove to be a struggle for Watson, as he finished 27th out of 27 cars after being caught up in an accident late in the race. Despite the early season struggles, Watson would turn his luck around in the Mid-Atlantic Classic at Orange County Speedway, where he drove his #9 Carolina Sand/Watson Sanding Late Model all the way up into the Top 5 after starting 19th, before settling for a sixth-place finish after losing a close battle with Ty Gibbs.

Watson is looking forward to competing at the wide variety of tracks remaining on the CARS Response Energy Tour schedule despite only having prior experience at Hickory and Ace Speedway. Although Watson would like to test at facilities that he has yet to turn a lap on, he admitted that David Gilliland Racing, who Watson has worked closely with since he debuted in Late Models, has been providing him in-depth information on how to navigate several upcoming tracks on the schedule, including South Boston Speedway.

With the Cloer Construction 300 only a few days away, Watson and his team have been testing at Hickory in order to gain as much knowledge as possible before the green flag drops on Saturday evening. Watson knows that he will have to outrun several talented Late Model veterans, but hopes that his prior experience at Hickory will help him secure a victory in front of his hometown crowd.

“We won every 100-lapper at Hickory last season,” Watson said. “It’s not a track that chews up tires, and it doesn’t have a lot of grip either. I’m going to try and settle into the Top 5 until about 50 to go, and then I’m going to try and go for the win.”

Watson will have company from not only the regular competitors of the CARS Response Energy LMSC Tour, but from other regulars at Hickory. Ryan Millington, the current Late Model points leader at Hickory who outdueled Watson for last season’s track championship, has filed an entry for the Cloer Construction 300 alongside Austin McDaniel, who will be looking for his first CARS Response Energy LMSC Tour victory after coming up a few laps short to Justin Carroll at the track last fall.