By JENNA FRYER, AP Auto Racing Writer
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s view is matter-of-fact when it comes to the task ahead: He must get his career back on track.
NASCAR's most popular driver saw his losing streak hit 96 races at Las Vegas, but his eighth-place finish Sunday was encouraging enough to make Earnhardt believe he is finally making strides toward Victory Lane after three rocky years at Hendrick Motorsports.
It was the second consecutive top-10 finish for Earnhardt, who had not strung together two solid runs since New Hampshire-Daytona last summer. It also moved him to 10th in the points, the first time he's been inside the top 10 since the ninth race of last season.
The finish was a testament to his budding relationship with Steve Letarte, his third crew chief since joining HMS in 2008. After qualifying 35th at Las Vegas and struggling through the first day of practice, the duo worked together to find more speed on the Chevrolet.
"It's obvious that it is working, when you really look at it," Earnhardt said. "I was sitting there in the middle of the race saying, 'You know, this really ain't a fluke. This is how it's supposed to go and how it should go and how it went in the past when things were good.' "
But it's been a long time since things were good, and team owner Rick Hendrick has so far failed to figure out how to fix the problem. He's characterized every move he's made with Earnhardt as one that won't fail, only to see the struggles continue.
So he blew up his organization during the offseason, shuffling the driver-crew chief lineup for three of his four teams. The move paid off in just the second week of the season, when Jeff Gordon snapped his 66-race winless streak with new crew chief Alan Gustafson.
Now Earnhardt hopes to end his long drought with Letarte, who has proven to be the in-race cheerleader that Earnhardt needs. His confidence admittedly shaken at times during the long losing stretch, he's often spoken of an inability to weather another rough season.
When he reported to testing at Daytona International Speedway in January, he seemed determined to make this year different.
"I'll stick around until I get it right," he vowed. "It's just eventually going to have to happen."
That's the motto he's apparently carried with him in the two months since, and reiterated Sunday that it's way past the time to get things going in the right direction.
"Failure at this point is completely unacceptable, and I've got to put it all out on the line, do everything I can to make this work," he said.
And if he doesn't?
"If it don't work with (Letarte), I've got nowhere else to go," he continued. "I've got no other options really other than race myself into oblivion with my own team. But I want this to work.
"I want to be successful and so I'm just trying to work hard, man."
Earnhardt indicated before the season that Letarte would make demands on his time like nothing the driver had seen before. Letarte wants the car to be the priority, and all the other demands on Earnhardt's time are secondary.
But Letarte insisted it wasn't because he'd heard Earnhardt was lazy or not always engaged. It's just how he runs things and what he expects from a driver.
"I don't know what his other routine was, I didn't really care what his other routine was," Letarte said. "I know how I like to see things done on the team side and the car side, what I'm responsible for. He has requests on the driver's side that he's responsible for.
"I think we've laid those out. I know what is of value and what is important to him, so I can make his job as bearable at times as it needs to be, and he does the same for me."
If Earnhardt wasn't sold on Letarte's approach immediately, Sunday had to have sealed the deal. The improvement from Friday's practice to Sunday's race — in which Earnhardt ran as high as fourth and might have finished better than eighth if not for a late call for four tires — came from two days of discussions between driver and crew chief.
"It's fun in this hauler, man," Earnhardt said. "When you're running good, everything is easier to do. But I really enjoy brainstorming with Steve, and I think it makes me smarter working with him. I become better at helping him and just in a short period of time.
"It's obvious that if a driver puts all that time in, there's got to be gains made and that would be a plus. He's just fun to brainstorm and work with and I just want to do good."