This year, for the first time since Cory Reed and Joey Gladstone were elementary school kids, the premier Pro Stock Motorcycle teams in the country descended upon Bristol Dragway in the mountains of eastern Tennessee. Until now, the two-wheel set had never been part of an NHRA national event here, so no one really had any idea what to expect from the legendary but, to them, completely unfamiliar track.

They just knew it was going to be bumpy. Really bumpy. Knock-your-hands-right-off-the-handlebars bumpy. Everyone was anxious about exactly what was going to happen when they let the clutch handle fly, unleashing their 200-mph missiles on Bristol’s notoriously uneven surface, but Gladstone, more than most, seemed unfazed. “You just have to be ready for it,” he said. “At a place like this, you just need to make sure you’re ahead of the bike the whole time.”

He was. After rolling off the trailer with a 6.98 at 193 mph Friday evening, Gladstone hung within hundredths of a second of that time all weekend, with a 6.96/190 Saturday afternoon and a 7.01/192 later that evening that positioned him ninth in the final lineup, locked into theoretically the closest race of the first round. It couldn’t have been closer than No. 8 vs. No. 9 anyway, but this one figured to be even tighter than ever because both Gladstone and Eddie Krawiec qualified with the same E.T., right down to the thousandth of a second – not just matching 6.96s, but identical 6.966s.

Krawiec, the 2008, 2011, 2012, and 2017 Pro Stock Motorcycle champ, had his choice of lanes because of his faster qualifying speed (196.36 mph to 190.75) and appeared to have the upper hand, but it was Gladstone who actually had the better head-to-head record coming in. “All we have to do is get down the back half of the track as good as we’ve been getting down the front half,” he said, “and this thing should run in the mid-.80s.”

It didn’t. With Reed convalescing and watching the livestream from home, Gladstone got the drop on Krawiec at the Tree, .030 to .040, but it was the last time he’d hold the lead. Instead of them both running the same e.t. they had in qualifying and Gladstone winning on a slight holeshot, he slowed from 6.96 to a 6.99 while Krawiec capitalized on the cool air and tight, tacky track to advance with by far his best run all weekend, a 6.89.