The US Grand Prix at Laguna Seca was arguably a make or break moment for home star Nicky Hayden, who came into the event with a best finish of eighth from his first seven races as a factory Ducati rider.

After six years at Honda, Hayden - like Marco Melandri and Loris Capirossi before him - has struggled to harness the Desmosedici, a machine that has achieved stunning success in the hands of Casey Stoner but little in the hands of anyone else.

The Australian has won 18 races since the start of 2007, including the first 800cc world championship, while all other Ducati riders have a combined total of one victory, by Capirossi in a wet/dry race at Motegi.

Hayden has won the US GP twice since 2005 and another weekend without real reward, at a track he knows so well, would have been a major blow - and he began to fear the worst after a disappointing 14th in Friday practice.

"The thought of not doing well at my home track literally had me sick to my stomach Friday," he confessed.

But the Kentuckian rebounded in style with eighth in Saturday's qualifying session, which marked the best qualifying performance by Stoner's team-mate since Capirossi was eighth on the grid for the final race of 2007.

Hayden then gained one place on the opening lap, which became sixth when his Repsol Honda replacement Andrea Dovizioso crashed out. But Hayden was boxed in behind Gresini Honda's Toni Elias, while the race leaders pulled away. The 69 finally got past Elias for fifth place on lap eight.

"I wish I could have got by Toni [Elias] sooner and got in that front group. I think I could have moved up," he said.

With the leaders out of touch, Hayden spent the rest of the race battling to keep Elias at bay, and ignoring warning lights from the dash of his Ducati.

"I basically ran what I qualified in for 32 laps I wasn't going to slow down and kept pushing and finally it [the instrumentation warning] gave up and went off," he revealed. "Riding this bike for 32 laps is a lot different than the Honda I had before. I was at my limit for the 45 minutes of the race.

"I don't really have a home track advantage any more. These guys aren't beginners."

A clearly relieved Hayden took the chequered flag as the top American rider, and just one place behind Stoner, whose physical condition saw him drop out of the podium fight during the second half of the race.

"I have won here twice, and to say that fifth place feels just as good might sound strange, but man, so much hard work has gone into getting us to this point, and I want to savor this feeling, " smiled Nicky. "To be racing at home, to score a solid result, and to have had fun out there is nice.

"I want to say a huge 'thank you' to my whole team, to Ducati, and to everybody who has continued to believe in me during some difficult times this season," he continued. "It was my best qualifying and best race this year. I'm really happy. I'm making progress."

And Hayden has results to back up that claim. After being punted out of round two in Japan on the opening lap, the American has finished 15th, 12th, 12th, 10th, 8th and now 5th in the races since. Fifth also matches Melandri's best result of last season.

Hayden was given a new crew chief to try and help with communication problems earlier in the year and has been trying new electronics to help cure the rear pumping problem on corner exit.

"The latest stuff we tested were some electronics I hadn't really used before," he said. "We went actually another step, but this week was the biggest improvement with the electronics. Being here at this track helped and the closer I get, and the faster I go, the easier it gets.

"Even the last couple of races, I have made progress, steadily, especially from Barcelona on. I hope we're on our way. By the time we get to Indy [round 12], I hope to get some 'hardware' there. "

A significant change in terms of riding style, compared with the Honda, is the amount of trail braking needed to help turn the Ducati, a characteristic Hayden is still getting used to and which influenced his decision to run the softer front tyre option in the race. The top four riders all ran the harder option, front and rear.

"I was pretty confident in the soft front tyre here," he explained. "I could brake harder. In Turns One, Two, Nine and Ten I was on the edge. I crashed [earlier in the weekend] trail braking into Turn Seven. With this bike you gotta brake a lot, and I have to get used to it. You have to stay on the brakes to keep it turning. I'll have moments on the track when I almost crash, and then I watch it on TV and it's nothing."

Despite the result, Stoner still finished 9.231sec in front Hayden - and it's not simply a case of 'doing what Stoner does' to close the gap.

"My riding style is different from Casey, so I can't do everything Casey does. He's also a lot smaller than he looks," said Nicky.

Stoner meanwhile was pleased to see his team-mate becoming more competitive: "I'm very happy about Nicky. It was awesome, really good to see. These past few races have been a progression for him."

Additional reporting by Lynne Huntting.