Dale Earnhardt Jr. was all smiles after stepping from his car, accepting congratulations from team members, his crew chief and even Richard Petty.
He approached a small group of reporters waiting to hear his thoughts on finishing 10th at Phoenix – his first top-10 at the 1-mile desert track since 2008.
"That's more like it," he said quietly, with a smile.
Earnhardt Jr. immediately cautioned that his revamped No. 88 team "still has got a little ways to go." But he was clearly pleased with the performance.
"We had a pretty good car!" he said cheerfully.
The top-10 finish was only Earnhardt Jr.'s third in the last 20 races, a maddening streak which has only added to his winless woes of the last couple years. As he struggled through the second half of last season and fell out of a Chase spot, Earnhardt Jr. only grew more frustrated.
But he and new crew chief Steve Letarte seem to have found a connection so far this year, and Phoenix showed the team could be headed in the right direction.
"We need to keep doing this," he said. "We need to do this a little bit better. We need to keep this up. I haven't run good here in a long time – I really haven't."
It was a solid day for Earnhardt Jr. all around. For some reason, he got some lucky breaks in situations where he wouldn't have been so fortunate last year.
He found his way through the early "big one" despite starting 35th ("Just luck," he said) and was able to overcome a loose wheel that caused him to pit under the green flag.
When a reporter observed the loose wheel would have ruined Earnhardt Jr.'s day last year, the driver nodded.
"Oh, I know," he said.
The team also had a wheel break on its jack during one part of the race. Asked why his equipment seems to fail him at times, Earnhardt Jr. smirked.
"We're just under a lot of pressure, man," Earnhardt Jr. said. "And even the parts feel it, I guess."
It's only the second race of the season, but Earnhardt Jr. is 17th in points (up five spots from Daytona) and feeling positive about his team's direction.
"He drove a great race, and he never gave up," team owner Rick Hendrick said. "To pit under green here with less than 100 laps to go, and come back for a 10th-place finish, you've had a good day."
Another reporter pointed out that Earnhardt Jr.'s Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Jeff Gordon, snapped a long winless streak on Sunday – and asked how close NASCAR's most popular driver was to doing the same thing.
"We were nine spots behind him," he said, "so that's about how close we are."