BRISTOL, Tenn. — When Dale Earnhardt Jr. failed to qualify for last year's championship race, he spent the final three months of the season out of the spotlight.
The focus was no longer on the struggles of NASCAR's most popular driver, shifting instead to the title contenders. Earnhardt liked being under the radar, without having every underwhelming run dissected.
He doesn't have that luxury anymore.
A decent start to the season has Earnhardt ranked 10th in the Sprint Cup standings for the first time since early last season. It's created a buzz around Earnhardt from a rabid fan base eager to see its driver snap his 96-race winless streak.
But Earnhardt isn't getting too far ahead of himself and urged everyone to be patient.
"I think we've just got to temper our excitement over what we've seen so far," he said Friday at Bristol Motor Speedway. "You've got to temper your mood a little bit and just keep working hard, keep staying focused, realizing how much further in the season we got to go."
Earnhardt has been down this road before, most recently 2008 in his first season with Hendrick Motorsports. Although he won only one race, he ran well most of the season and hovered inside the top-five in points all the way up to the start of the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
Then he faded fast and has been mired in a slump ever since. Earnhardt failed to make the Chase the last two seasons, finished inside the top-five just five times and couldn't get close to Victory Lane.
Those struggles played in a role in team owner Rick Hendrick's offseason organizational changes, which led to crew chief changes on three of his four teams. Earnhardt was paired with Steve Letarte, who had spent the last several seasons with four-time champion Jeff Gordon.
Through three races this season, the pairing seems to be perfect.
"I think Stevie pulls things out of Dale that are valuable to making them go faster," Gordon said, "and I think Dale adds something to Stevie to keep them in check and calmed down to focus on his job. I think they are good together. I really like hearing them work together."
Earnhardt won the pole for the season-opening Daytona 500 and ran up front before a late flat tire contributed to being caught in an accident. He was 10th at Phoenix and eighth at Las Vegas.
But there's 33 races remaining, and Earnhardt knows he's got a long way to go before he can call this season a comeback.
"The challenge (is) me and (Letarte) maintaining our positive attitude, maintaining the communication and the consistency of how it's working right now," Earnhardt said. "That is going to be the part that is the hardest, that will determine whether we will succeed or not, is whether we can keep that going over an entire season. The season is long. Things don't go right. You get (mad).
"You have to get through those points. They happen, whether it be in a practice or whatever — the littlest thing, you've got to be able to manage it. I have a hard time not letting certain things just ruin my day and getting (mad) at everything around me. I've always had that problem."
That's where Letarte has to take over.
His role so far has been in-race cheerleader, keeping Earnhardt calm and confident during the bumpy stretches.
"When you get yourself in a hole or the car isn't quite going like you want it to go or the car is not responding like you think it should, he gives you the impression that you're going to fix it before the end of the day," Earnhardt said. "As long as he doesn't fool me too many times — he does a great job of keeping you in the game, that you're part of the puzzle and everybody needs to be pulling in the same direction."
The key is showing enough improvement over the next few weeks to get Earnhardt closer to ending this long losing streak. His last victory came at Michigan in June, 2008.
Mark Martin, his teammate at Hendrick Motorsports, believes Earnhardt is headed in the right direction.
"Junior is well on his way to what I would call a recovery," Martin said. "It's been a tough stretch for him. I think that he is incredibly committed this year and is feeling comfortable and confident, more confident."