Turning the seat over to Joey Gladstone at the 64th annual U.S. Nationals, former NHRA Rookie of the Year Cory Reed stood back and watched his teammates perform at the biggest race of the year. Reed, who, as a stone rookie, clinched his spot in the Countdown to the Championship playoffs here in 2016, looked on as Gladstone made the field and Angelle Sampey, the 2000-02 NHRA Pro Stock Motorcycle world champ, bumped in in last-shot qualifying at the last race of the regular season to keep herself in title contention.

Sampey ripped off a clutch 6.94 that nearly vaulted her into the top half of the field, and Gladstone entered eliminations in his Team Liberty debut one spot ahead of her in the No. 10 position after laying down a string of 6.90s. Both were eliminated in the first round, but Reed, who’s suffered through way too many aggravating outings already this year, remains undeterred.

“We still haven’t got it all figured out,” Reed said. “We’ve been locking up the clutch too hard and not keeping the motor freed up enough to drive through it and run like it wants to. We didn’t want to take a bunch of clutch out of it again this time and get too far on the other side of it, and we didn’t.” Facing rookie Mark Paquette in the opening round, Gladstone came out on the wrong end of one of the closest matches of the entire weekend. He and Paquette tore off the line separated by just thousandths of a second, and Gladstone came out on the wrong end of a heartbreaker, 6.968/192 to 6.970/192. They crossed the finish line separated by less than a hundredth of a second. Two pair later, Sampey followed with a similar 6.937/193 that wasn’t quite enough against former world champion Andrew Hines’ 6.880/195.

“We’re getting there,” Reed said, “getting closer and closer all the time. It was actually kind of nice to just be there without all the responsibilities and the stress of racing the bike, trying to get in your zone, and for once just standing back and watching how everybody else was working together. Losing in the first round with both bikes was frustrating because there’s nothing you can do about it, but not riding wasn’t the torture I expected it to be. I’m fine. Both bikes qualified at Indy and things are starting to click.”