Dale Earnhardt Jr. told reporters Friday at Fontana that the difference between last season and this one extends further than just the chemistry with new crew chief Steve Letarte.
Though Earnhardt Jr. said Letarte has certainly helped things – particularly in the way he continues to improve the cars during the race – the cars themselves have been a bit easier for Earnhardt Jr. to drive this season.
Earnhardt Jr. said he can "definitely see a difference" in his ability to be more aggressive with the cars, thanks to increased grip.
"Everything in practice and everything about the team, I don't feel like we're a ton different than last year," he said. "But when I get in the car in the race, I just feel like I've got a little more grip, a little more ability to be aggressive and challenge people. At least that's how it's been for three weeks."
Earnhardt Jr. wasn't sure why the cars were improved, but he speculated it was something company-wide with the Hendrick Motorsports cars. He said he didn't think it had much to do with the redesigned nose on the front of his Chevrolet this year.
"It's just something about the car, being able to race a little more, race around guys," he said. "Normally, man, you're just trying to hang on to your car, just keep your car underneath you – you're not really able to race other guys. You can't really even consider racing another competitor, you're so consumed with trying to control your own car.
"This year, that seems to be a little different, where we can go, ‘Alright, the car is kind of under us. Let's race this guy real hard where we can take some risks and make some passes.'"
So far, it seems to be paying off for Earnhardt Jr. The sport's most popular driver is ninth in points, his highest ranking since Talladega last April.
Since Daytona, he's recorded three straight top-11 finishes.