Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s 12th-place result Sunday at Fontana left him wondering what kind of finish would have been in store had his qualifying effort on Friday been better.
Earnhardt Jr. said starting 30th or worse – which he did at Auto Club Speedway and overall in three of the last four races – has hampered his team's ability to get top-five finishes, despite having great race cars.
"We had a much better car than that, we just qualified so bad," he said. "... My car was definitely a top-five car in the last 60 percent of the race, at least. I believe in the last 10 percent of races this year, (the car) is the best it's been all weekend. You can't ask for anything better than that. So if we just qualify better, we'll be alright."
Earnhardt Jr. praised his team's consistency, and said it was "something I've never really had."
Aside from the Daytona 500, in which he started on the pole but was involved in a crash, Earnhardt Jr. has placed 10th, eighth, 11th and 12th this season.
"We're a top-10 team, you know?" he said. "This is about as consistent as I've ever been in my whole career. So that's a good thing."
The focus going forward, to Martinsville and beyond, will be for Earnhardt Jr. to help his team by improving his qualifying performance.
"It's not allowed us to really show how good we actually are," he said. "... You're really not helping yourself starting the race in 30th – even (with) really, really good race cars."
Why does a poor qualifying effort hurt so much? Because Earnhardt Jr. said the amount of dirty air in traffic makes it extremely difficult to gain track position.
"It's hard to get there," he said. "The cars just don't magically drive right up through there in all that dirty air, and guys racing you real hard on the outside and stuff. They're doing what they're supposed to do. It was fun, but I've got to qualify better."
Early in Sunday's race, Earnhardt Jr. struggled and said for the first time this year, crew chief Steve Letarte's changes weren't having much impact.
"I was like, 'Hey, you know, I don't want to be repeating myself here, but nothing is working yet – so just remember we haven't made it better or touched on what we needed to fix,'" Earnhardt Jr. said. "We tried a couple other things that steered him in a different direction, and we found what we needed to find to help me with the car a little bit."
The fact Letarte improved the car yet again and got it to where Earnhardt Jr. felt comfortable driving it as the race wound down led the driver to say he had "100 percent confidence" in his crew chief.
"Everybody's believing in everybody," Earnhardt Jr. said. "Everybody's confident it's going to work out. The communication feels really good."
Despite the 12th-place finish, Earnhardt Jr. slipped three spots in the point standings. He's now 12th after five races.