PHOTO: Nick Sweet made wholesale changes on his car in the off-season, but hopes to back up his Merchants Bank 150 and Thunder Road titles from a year ago. (VMM photo)

BARRE — Nick Sweet has always been under the watchful eye of his hometown fans at Thunder Road Int’l Speedbowl, but this weekend he’ll have everyone looking at him.

Sweet enters Sunday’s Merchants Bank 150 season opener as not only the defending winner of the race, but also as the reigning “King of the Road.”

The Barre driver, 26, has had a storybook rise from Thunder Road’s entry-level Street Stock division just eight years ago. Driving for his family-owned team, Sweet has collected track championships in the Tiger Sportsman and Late Model divisions, claimed three rookie titles, and has sampled success on the traveling American-Canadian Tour. It was against the ACT group that Sweet earned his Merchants Bank 150 win one year ago, beating Brian Hoar — who later took down his seventh series championship — to start his title-winning drive. He won the CARQUEST Vermont Governor’s Cup 100 six weeks later, then stole the championship from Dave Pembroke on the final night of the season in late August.

Despite his success last year Sweet is only cautiously optimistic about his chances in 2011.

“I’m nervous about how the car is going to react this summer, we’ve done a lot of changes. The only thing that we didn’t replace was the center section of the chassis,” Sweet said. “Honestly, I don’t know what to think of this year. It’s going to be so hard to repeat what we did last year. I never even would have dreamed of something like [last year’s success] back when I was a kid playing with Matchbox cars. It’s going to be hard to ever do that again I think. I hope we can.”

The off-season changes made by Sweet’s team — led by his father and crew chief, Shayne — were forced. After clinching the Thunder Road title, the bottom fell out: The car overheated at the ACT Showdown at Chaudiere in Quebec, a faulty suspension part led to Sweet failing to qualify on Labor Day weekend at Thunder Road, and a season-ending crash at New Hampshire Motor Speedway destroyed the Saint J Auto/Packard Fuels No. 88 Pontiac, forcing the team to rebuild the entire car.

Still, Sweet says that while he knows he’s got local fans counting on him to perform again this year, any pressure he feels is self-applied.

“You always put pressure on yourself, it’s not really pressure from anybody else,” Sweet said. “It’s just because I’m a competitive person. I hate losing. You really can’t [allow yourself to] feel the pressure. We’re not saying we’re going to have a bad season, but, say if you don’t have the season you had [last year], you can’t get disappointed. You’ve just got to keep trying.”