Ben Watkins racked up a pair of strong finishes on the North Carolina Dirt Late Model scene last weekend, continuing a wave of momentum dating back to last season.
The Rock Hill, South Carolina native went north of the border for a weekend doubleheader, competing with both the Carolina Clash Super Late Model Series and the FUEL Racing Series. When the weekend was over, Watkins took a pair of podium finishes and a new first-place trophy back to South Carolina.
The weekend started in Gastonia, North Carolina, for the Skyler Trull Memorial at Carolina Speedway. Watkins struggled with his car’s handling early in the evening, but worked throughout the evening to dial his car in for the feature.
“We got off to a slow start when we unloaded,” Watkins told Speed51.com. “We kind of struggled getting the car to turn in. That kind of took over our focus.
“That put us behind in the heat race. Ended up finishing second in the heat race, so that started us third row outside. We worked on the car some more and found some stuff.”
Once the 40-lap feature race rolled off, Watkins played it safe, knowing Carolina Speedway usually provides a battle of attrition.
“Carolina is always a survival track for whatever reason,” Watkins said. “I wasn’t really gung-ho to blast it to the front. I just wanted to stay in contention and as the laps wound down, cars started falling out, guys going for it and getting in trouble. A couple of them fell out, we passed a couple cars, and we ended up sitting pretty good there.”
In the end, Watkins entered the final restart – a one-lap shootout – running third behind Joey Coulter and Carolina Clash points leader Michael Brown. Watkins took second place from Brown on the restart to pick up the runner-up finish.
“I knew [Brown] would be going for it, with the momentum he had before the caution and the spot he was in,” Watkins said. “I was watching for that, and he didn’t make a great corner in three and four.”
The next night, Watkins went to Fayetteville Motor Speedway for the FUEL Racing Series. Watkins dominated the night, taking fast time in qualifying, a heat race win, and the feature win for his second victory in as many FUEL races in 2018.
“Our Limited program has been pretty good,” Watkins said. “The end of the year, we finished off really good with our Limited program, with a couple wins and some strong seconds right at the end.
“The beginning of this year, we picked up right where we finished last year, just really good and solid,” continued Watkins. “I’m just really happy with the confidence we have in that car and the changes we make. We know when we make a change, what it’s going to do. Stuff has kind of went our way as well. At this point, we haven’t had anything crazy happen with mechanical stuff. Anything can happen, but the way fate’s had it things have been going our way.”
Along with the strength of his Limited Late Model program, evident in his FUEL dominance thus far, Watkins is pleased with the level of competition in the Carolina Clash series. Watkins won that tour’s championship in 2015 but believes the talent level at Clash races has increased in recent seasons.
“I would say, not to knock it in the past, but the people we have dropping in and running here and there, and the people who have been consistent showing up, have been strong cars,” Watkins explained. “Most Super races nowadays, you don’t roll in and get an easy one. The teams that are there are more capable every weekend.
“There have been better caliber drivers, week in and week out, really strong cars. It makes your core drivers that stick with that series better. It’s been a little more racey this year, which is a good thing.”
The Carolina Clash series will race again this weekend at Modoc Raceway (SC), contesting the Jack Starrette Memorial on April 28. The FUEL Racing Series will enjoy a weekend off before visiting Elkin, North Carolina’s Friendship Motor Speedway on May 5. Speed51.com will be on hand for both races to bring race fans coverage, highlights, and interviews from the pair of Carolina dirt tracks.
-By Zach Evans, Speed51.com Southeast Editor - Twitter: @ZTEvans
-Photo Credit: Joseph Swann/Gen 3 Performance Imaging