Joey Gladstone and team owner Cory Reed finished the Auto Club Finals just like they wound up the year: number 2. Which is a lot better than they possibly could have imagined when the season began. “If anybody had told me a year ago that we’d be in a battle for the championship right down to the last day of the season … who wouldn’t take that?” he asked. “Matt [Smith] was a shoo-in to win the championship – everybody knew that. He’s been doing this a long time. He’s the best. So just to have a mathematical shot at it on the last day of the season is amazing.”
Gladstone personally knocked Smith out in the semifinals, and in the most gratifying possible manner: on a holeshot. Had he not, he’d have finished third, because the rider best positioned to overtake him for second in the final standings, Matt’s wife Angie, won the event. She edged Gladstone in a tight final-round race, 6.74/199 to 6.73/199, but not before Gladstone had locked up second place by upsetting Matt on a holeshot in the semifinals, where they ran identical e.t.s right to the thousandth of a second, 6.757 to 6.757. “That’s right up there with biggest rounds of my life,” he said. “Beating the world champ? That’s a hard thing to do to.”
Mired at the bottom of the qualifying order after a pair of shut-off efforts Friday, Gladstone wasn’t even in the field going into the final day of qualifying. “The team kept me from being depressed for very long,” he said, “and I really have to thank Vance & Hines for giving us the power to win. Anyone who doesn’t believe they give you everything … I don’t know what to tell you. They do.”
That was evident when Gladstone wheeled Reed’s Diamond W/Fatheadz Suzuki Hayabusa to the No. 3 spot with a career-best 6.72 Saturday morning. He kept his dwindling title hopes alive with a 6.76/198 to 6.97/197 first-round win over Hector Arana Jr., who was infinitely harder to beat than most No. 14 qualifiers. He’d just won the last two races, Dallas and Las Vegas. Three pairs later, Matt Smith put the championship mathematically out of reach with an uneventful 6.77/200 to 7.03/187 first-round decision over drag bike godfather Michael Phillips, who was instrumental in Gladstone and Reed’s success all season.
Maintaining focus and finishing strong, Gladstone defeated national record holder Karen Stoffer in the second round and Smith in the semi’s. “That might have been a little redemption,” said Gladstone, who amassed six final-round appearances, three wins, and a career-best 31-12 win-loss record over the course of the 2022 season. “To have a shot at the championship on the last day of the season was dream come true.”