A round and a half ahead of Matt Smith coming into the Midwest Nationals, Cory Reed and rider Joey Gladstone hit St. Louis thinking big. Title contenders typically average a semifinal finish across the Countdown to the Championship playoffs, and Gladstone did in fact make it to the semifinals, but the rider best positioned to keep him from the crown – five-time world champion Matt Smith – got the best of him there and won the final to assume the points lead with three races to go.
“I’m not going to stress too much about points,” said Gladstone, who’d won three of the past four races, the first three of his NHRA career – Sonoma, Topeka, and Reading. “It’s a dogfight every weekend, and we’re all running so close together and are so close to each other in the points, but whatever I’ve been doing seems to be working so I’m just going to keep doing it.”
Gladstone’s Diamond W/Fatheadz team didn’t make a bad run all weekend, hovering in the 6.70s throughout, starting with a 6.79/199 Friday evening in the first qualifying session that placed him precisely in the middle of the pack, seventh of 13 qualifiers. He followed with identical 6.777s Saturday afternoon, first at 198.67 mph to leapfrog emerging star Marc Ingwersen (6.785) and former world champion Jerry Savoie (6.791) for the No. 5 spot and then backing it up with a second 6.777, this one at 199.58 mph.
“In weather like this, you can really get after it,” Gladstone said of the ideal track and barometric conditions present all weekend. Sunday morning in the first round, he drew a much tougher first-round opponent than No. 5 usually faces, national record holder Karen Stoffer, the only rider to beat him since Denver.
When the tree flashed green, Gladstone was more than up to the challenge, trouncing her otherwise fine 6.87/196 with his best run all weekend, a 6.75 at more than 200 mph. In the quarterfinals against Angie Smith, he covered the quarter-mile in precisely 6.777 seconds for the third time in four runs and passed the tree with a bike-length lead, .031 to .177, to easily outdistance her.
The wheels came off in that crucial semifinal battle, when Matt Smith matched Gladstone on the tree, .019 to .023, and walked away for a 6.75/201 to 6.78/198 win to overtake him by a single point. (After Smith’s final-round win, the lead now stands at 21 points.) “If it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be,” Gladstone said of their ongoing championship battle. “If it happens, it happens, and if it goes our way, we’ll enjoy it.”