BRISTOL, Tenn. — When Dale Earnhardt Jr. failed to qualify for last year's Chase for the Championship, he spent the final three months of the season out of the spotlight.
The focus was no longer on the struggles of NASCAR Sprint Cup's most popular driver, shifting instead to the title contenders. Earnhardt liked being under the radar.
He doesn't have that luxury now.
A decent start to the season has Earnhardt 10th in points. That has 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, where he qualified 22nd for Sunday's race. "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, his first season with Hendrick Motorsports. He won only once but hovered inside the top five in points all the way up to the start of the Chase.
Then he faded fast and has been in a slump ever since. Earnhardt missed the Chase the past two seasons and had just five top-five finishes.
Those struggles played a role in team owner Rick Hendrick's offseason organizational changes, which led to Earnhardt being paired with Steve Letarte, Jeff Gordon's former crew chief.
"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."
The past two races, Earnhardt was 10th at Phoenix and eighth at Las Vegas. But there are 33 races left, and Earnhardt knows that's a long way before he can call 2011 a comeback.
"The challenge (is) me and (Letarte) maintaining our positive attitude, maintaining the communication," 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."