Righting a ship that seemed adrift just two weeks ago at the U.S. Nationals, Joey Gladstone rode Cory Reed’s Diamond W/Fatheadz Hayabusa to victory in the first race of the six-race Countdown to the Championship, the Pep Boys Nationals. Qualified smack in the middle of the pack – No. 8 – he roared to life in eliminations, beating incoming points leader Matt Smith in the quarterfinals in perhaps the biggest single round of his entire career.

“This is awesome,” Gladstone said, clearly in disbelief after his third win in four races – his first three wins ever. “It’s still hard to believe it’s really happening.”

“Pure happiness,” exclaimed Reed, now almost fully recovered from his devastating accident last September in Charlotte. “Having so many people root for us … it’s a dream come true.”

Gladstone, who entered the Countdown in second place, an even 20 points behind Smith, opened with a decent 6.81/198 in Friday night qualifying, slowed to a mediocre 6.83/197 early Saturday afternoon, then powered to a 6.79/199 in last-shot qualifying to move back into the fast half of the field – barely. Waiting for him was Hector Arana Jr., a 15-time national event winner whose career has been marred by red-light starts and who took himself out with another one in the first round.

Smith, the five-time Pro Stock Motorcycle champion who passed Gladstone for the points lead with his Indy win and qualified No. 1 here, loomed in a titanic second-round showdown. For a crucial win that surely will be looked back on as the turning point if Gladstone eventually wins the title, he got Smith at the line and outran him in an instant classic, 6.815 to 6.818.

“I thought I saw the win-light,” he said, “but then I was like, ‘Wait a minute. Did I really see it?’ I wasn’t sure until they were pointing at me as I rolled around the corner. I’d never beaten Matt on his V-Twin. He’s a great competitor, one of my idols, and getting him out of here early was huge.”

In the semifinals, Gladstone came from behind for a 6.86/196 to 6.92/195 win over upstart Marc Ingwersen, who’d taken out Angelle Sampey on a huge holeshot, then faced Angie Smith, who had the full might of Matt Smith Racing behind her, in the final. That one was over immediately when she went red, but he had her all the way with a clutch .012 reaction time and a better run, 6.83/196 to 6.86/198.

“To win, you really have to learn how to tune these things on Sundays,” said Gladstone, now the top-ranked rider in Pro Stock Motorcycle. “Eliminations is not the same thing as qualifying, and, as we learned at Indy, what works at one track doesn’t work at the next one.”