Back on the line just an hour after teammate Cory Reed’s devastating crash, Joey Gladstone upset championship contender Steve Johnson in the Charlotte semi’s to reach the brink of his first major title. An hour or so later he had Angelle Sampey covered until a disastrous, once-in-a-lifetime mechanical glitch muzzled his bike and denied him his first NHRA victory.

Since then … nothing. It’s been one early exit after another. Dallas: out first round. Bristol: out first round. And, now, Las Vegas: out first round. None was more disheartening than this latest setback, at the Dodge Nationals in Vegas. This time Gladstone didn’t have a chance – he took himself out with a red-light start, and right when Reed was there to watch.

Confined to a wheelchair since September and probably into the first month or so of next year, minimum, Reed, bored to tears watching from the sidelines at home, found his way back to a racetrack for the first time since his catastrophic crash. “It sucks not being out here,” he said. “You’re stuck at home, you get all excited about finally having something to look forward to – watching the livestream of the race – and then it starts, and it’s not the same at all. You’re there, but you’re not racing. Your team is. Not you – you’re just watching.”

With his team leader and best bud looking on intently, Gladstone opened Dodge Nationals qualifying with a 7.09/193 that positioned him sixth at the time, followed with a much better 6.95/191 that got him right back up to sixth, and entered eliminations in the ninth spot after rolling through the beams on his third and final qualifying attempt.

In the first round, opposite returning veteran Chris Bostick, who qualified just ahead of him in the No. 8 spot, Gladstone narrowly fouled. It was a crusher – his best run of the entire event, a 6.939 that tied Bostick’s qualifying time right to the thousandth of a second, and right when Bostick stumbled to a 6.98 but won anyway.

“The bike’s not really running we think it should right now,” said Reed, bound to a wheelchair with pins sticking out of him but equally bound and determined to get back on the quarter-mile by early next year. “This was never going to be easy – I never expected it to be. We want to do better, and we will, but nothing really looks completely out of whack right now. Nothing’s screaming ‘fix me,’ so I don’t know why it’s not running better. If we find something in testing, we’ll be at Pomona for the Finals. If we don’t, we won’t.”