Consistency fuels Countdown hopes

KENT, Wash. -- Sometimes winning isn't enough to get where you need to be in the NHRA.

Ron Capps has five victories this season and Ashley Force Hood has one. But Force Hood could start the Countdown playoff on top and gain a 20-point bonus.

The two Funny Car drivers are in a dead heat at the top of the standings entering the final eliminations Sunday for the Northwest Nationals at Pacific Raceways.

The man with the most victories isn't on top in Top Fuel, either. Larry Dixon has four wins this season, but he ranks second, 116 points behind Antron Brown with three wins in 2009.

It's the age-old question in racing: What is more important -- winning or consistency?

NASCAR has wrestled with that debate for years. It was a major factor in switching to the Chase playoff system after Matt Kenseth ran away with the points championship in 2003.

Another change was made two years ago to seed the 12 Chase competitors by victories instead of points.

But NHRA seeding for the six-race Countdown is based strictly on points. Winning events is no guarantee of starting the playoffs on top.

"It is what it is," Force Hood said. "For me, it's important to keep going as many rounds as we can at each race. The more rounds you run the more you learn.

"Everybody wants to win, but I'm proud of the fact that we've made it to so many final rounds this year. It's going to help us when the Countdown starts."

Capps still has five events to try to outpoint Force Hood and Tony Pedregon (who is 54 points behind them) to make sure he starts the Countdown No. 1.

"Sure, it would be great to have a little more incentive for winning," Capps said. "And winning is great for our sponsors. But we are trained to look at round wins, and the truth is, Ashley has done a better job of that than we have so far."

Force Hood has made it to six final rounds this season, but lost in five of those matchups. Reaction times are the weak point she continues to work on. The opponent has beaten Force Hood off the line in 28 of 36 matchups this season.

"My reaction times are getting better and better," Force Hood said. "I have a practice tree [vertical starting lights] and use it as much as I can. But it isn't the same as being out there in the car."

Capps is one of the first drivers to defend Force Hood, saying she has earned her place and deserves to share the top spot with him despite her lack of victories.

"I know they are still a few guys who aren't accepting of her," Capps said. "But she's a big deal for this sport. When she loses, people turn off their TVs.

"She's also very good. She doesn't red-light or do anything stupid in the car. And she carries herself very well."

The points system also has benefited Top Fueler Brandon Bernstein. Each of the top three drivers in Top Fuel has at least three wins, but Bernstein's in fourth, only 57 points behind third-place Tony Schumacher.

Each round victory is worth 20 points.

"We base things not so much on winning the race, but getting to the semifinals and finals every race," Bernstein said. "You're trying to go rounds. We haven't won a race this year, but we're going rounds."

Bernstein is winless in final rounds this season, going 0-for-4. He is 0-for-8 in finals since winning eight of the first nine final-round appearances in his career.

Mathematically speaking, winning is not a requirement for earning a championship in racing. If a driver finished fifth every week in NASCAR and didn't win a race, he probably would win the Sprint Cup title.

The NHRA has a similar oddity. If a driver made it to every final round and lost, he probably would win the championship. Not likely, but it shows winning might need a little more meaning for the competitors.

"You don't want to make it too complicated," said NHRA vice president Jerry Archambeault. "The system we have seeds people on consistency. Ashley has been more consistent so far."

NASCAR still struggles with the winning versus consistency question. Mark Martin has the most victories this season with four wins, but he's 11th in the Sprint Cup standings and in the danger zone for not making the Chase.

Kyle Busch has three victories, but he's 10th, only two points ahead of Martin. If Martin and Busch fail to make the Chase, NASCAR could feel the need to change the system again to ensure that doesn't happen in the future.

Bernstein ranks ahead of three Top Fuel racers who have won a race this season -- Spencer Massey, Morgan Lucas and Doug Kalitta. But all three drivers probably will make the NHRA playoff.

Archambeault sees this year as a bit of a fluke. Most of the time, the driver who wins the most races will start the Countdown on top.

"But we are not afraid to re-evaluate it when these things come up," Archambeault said. "This is a unique situation. I don't think that will happen very often. If it does, we'll look at it."

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.