"Failure at this point is completely unacceptable, and I've got to put it all out on the line and do everything I can to make this work," Earnhardt said. "If it don't work with [Letarte], I got nowhere else to go. I got no other options, really other than just to race myself into oblivion with my own team and Tony Jr. and them guys. But I want this to work. I want to be in a CoT the rest of my career as long as I can and I want to be successful and so I'm just trying to work hard, man. We're getting better. It feels like it's working."
Sunday's eighth-place finish coupled with last week's 10th at Phoenix marked the first time Junior has notched back-to-back top 10s since July of 2010.
A top 10 might have seemed farfetched at the beginning of the day after Junior qualified 33rd. But he and Letarte started working on the car as soon as the first caution falg flew and Earnhardt even ran as high as fourth during the second half of the race.
"I guess the best thing that we did all day long was the adjustments," Earnhardt said. "I kept telling Stevie what I thought I needed and what the car felt like it was doing wrong and he was hitting on it every time. We were kind of working together on some ideas and we hit on one idea that was really good and it really woke the car up."
After working with Lance McGrew last season, Earnhardt was paired with Letarte, formerly Jeff Gordon's crew chief, when car owner Rick Hendrick shuffled the crews on three of his four teams before the 2011 season began.
In some way, Junior's current career position is mimicking that of Danica Patrick's, who is making the transition to NASCAR driving for JR Motorsports, the Nationwide team that Earnhardt Jr. owns. The two are the most marketable faces in U.S. auto racing despite on-track success not matching their level of recognition recently.
Patrick scored the best finish of her Nationwide career on Saturday by finishing fourth, and Junior made the biggest leap from his qualifying position of anyone on Sunday. Junior now sits 11th in the standings.
Is Vegas a harbinger of more good things to come?
- Steve Letarte