Joey Gladstone returned to the site of the most unforgettable race of his career – the out-and-out worst one ever and at the same time the absolute best: the 2021 Carolina Nationals, where his best friend, team owner Cory Reed, crashed right in front of him in round two and then a freak mechanical glitch in the final ripped away an in-the-bag first major victory.

Riding the crest of a season-long wave of success, Gladstone landed in a second consecutive Charlotte final – sort of. He was there for the last round, the third Pro Stock Motorcycle quad of the day, but at the Four-Wide Nationals the third- and fourth-place finishers are considered semifinalists. Still, it was a fantastic weekend, yet another late-round finish that catapulted him to fourth in the NHRA standings, the highest he’s ever been this deep into a season.

“I’m living my dream,” said Gladstone, who reached the semi’s at the season-opening Gatornationals and the quarterfinals in Houston. “I can’t express how proud I am of my team.” Led by Reed and longtime crew chief Cecil Towner, Gladstone made his best qualifying run all weekend right off the bat, a 6.80/198, followed by a 6.86/197 under better conditions Friday night and a 6.88/199 and 6.82/197 on Saturday.

Sunday in the first round, Gladstone edged reigning NHRA world champ Matt Smith, 6.84/200 to 6.86/198, to finish second behind Angelle Sampey’s outstanding 6.76/199. (Under the four-wide format, the top two in each “quad” of four bikes advance.) With a 13.43 at 45 mph, Kelly Clontz finished a distant fourth.

In the semi’s, in one of the more memorable moments of his entire career, Gladstone lined up against three former world champions and whipped all three – Eddie Krawiec, Sampey, and Jerry Savoie – with a 6.81/198. He outran Krawiec, beat Sampey on a holeshot, and Savoie, who was quicker than any of them with 6.78/199, red-lighted.

“That’s three gangsters in the other three lanes,” Gladstone said. “Last year, I really got my heart ripped out in the final, and this year I’m going to ride my heart out.” He did, drilling winner Krawiec and winner Steve Johnson with a .037 reaction time, but slipped to his worst run of the long weekend, a 6.90/199 that left him well short of Johnson’s winning 6.74/200.

“A four-wide isn’t like a regular final,” he said. “You know in the back of your mind the whole time what your odds are. Instead of having to beat one guy, you’ve got to beat three, so the pressure’s not the same. We may have slowed down and finished fourth, but I’ll take it. That first win is coming.”