At the Four-Wide Nationals in Las Vegas, for the first time since his 2016 Rookie of the Year campaign, 28-year-old Cory Reed upset one name after another to reach an NHRA national event final. There, the former motocross star took out two of his three opponents – Scotty Pollacheck and Steve Johnson – but in a four-wide final, just as in any traditional one-on-one duel, only one driver ultimately emerges victorious.

In two preliminary rounds under this unique, divisive format, you don’t actually have to win – you can be second and still advance, which was perfect because in both the first and semifinals rounds, Reed finished second. He left a lofty list of accomplished riders in his wake: many-time national event winner Karen Stoffer in the first quad and former teammate Angelle Sampey and reigning national champion Matt Smith, who have seven championships between them, in the semi’s.

“I’m back,” Reed said after one of the finest outings of his still-young drag racing career. Powered by the vaunted Vance & Hines conglomerate, he muddled through three qualifying sessions with somewhat uneven results (7.07/191, 7.13/187, and a ninth-best 7.03/191) but came to life on race day. “I want to win. That’s the goal, that’s everything. And when I got to that final, I really felt like I was going to win.”

Smith had everybody covered in the first round with an outstanding 6.88 at 196.87 mph, but Reed left on him so badly he almost beat him to the stripe with a 6.98/192. (Stoffer’s strong 6.92/192 was voided by a foul start.) In the semi’s, Pollacheck got there first with a 6.93/193 but Reed was right on his wheelie bar with a 6.97/191, well ahead of highly favored Sampey’s 7.07/162 and Smith’s troubled 7.72/128.

More confident than ever, Reed let the clutch fly in the final round, but instead of a .017 light like he’d had in the opening round, his reaction time came up .049. “I didn’t cut as good of a light as I could have,” he said, “because the whole time I was thinking, ‘Don’t red-light, don’t red-light.’ “When I let go of the handle, the bike just didn’t get up and go. The clutch didn’t separate like it should – it didn’t flash. For whatever reason, it didn’t grab.”

Pollacheck red-lighted, Johnson broke, and suddenly there was just one rider between Reed and his first major NHRA title: his pal, Oehler, who outran him, 6.91/194 to by far Reed’s best run all weekend, a 6.94/193. Even with a perfect reaction time, there was nothing he could’ve done. “Losing sucks, but I can’t really complain,” Reed said. “This was a good weekend. “I totally thought I was going to win, 100 percent. I thought I had it.”