Dale Earnhardt Jr. has 18 career victories, more than $52 million in winnings and a perpetual hold on NASCAR's most popular driver award.

The only thing missing from his resume is a coveted Cup championship.

What would adding that elusive title mean?

"It would improve my overall awesomeness," Earnhardt declared.

Awesomeness?

"Yeah. I worked on greatness for a while," he explained, "but I tapped it out."

The quest for "awesomeness" begins Sunday at New Hampshire International Speedway in Loudon, N.H., where Earnhardt starts the Chase for the championship seeded fourth in the 12-driver field.

After a one-year absence, he's back in the title hunt and couldn't be more thrilled to be among the contenders. And there's no doubt whatsoever his enthusiasm is genuine.

Earnhardt was in a fantastic mood during NASCAR's two-day swing through New York City to promote the Chase, and tales of his humorous exploits and one-liners followed him from stop-to-stop as teammates Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson asked for constant updates.

When Junior is on, everyone wants to be part of the show.

And if he has it his way, the next 10 weeks will be an all-star performance.

He's statistically had better seasons — "I won six races in 2004, remember?" — but Earnhardt revealed this week he believes he lost the championship that year because he wasn't prepared to win one. He finished fifth in the final points standings that season, the first year of the Chase, and can rattle off a list of mistakes he made down the stretch that took him out of title contention.

He still drove for Dale Earnhardt Inc. back then, and before this season, it was his last legitimate chance to win a title. He missed the Chase in 2005, was a non-factor fifth in 2006, and missed it again last year in his final season driving for his late father's race team.

Now he's with mighty Hendrick Motorsports, where Earnhardt has the equipment, support and freedom from both the pressure and drama that he was saddled with at DEI.

Everything is finally equal for Earnhardt, personally and professionally, and it shows.

"I think he's got a lot more confidence this year," said two-time series champion Tony Stewart. "He's always been confident off the track, but I think you see it in his driving on the track that he's got a renewed confidence that I don't think we've seen the last few years."

Kevin Harvick, who had the unenviable task of taking over the late Earnhardt's ride following his 2001 death, has also noticed a change in Junior this season that he equates to cutting ties with DEI and the troubled relationship he had with stepmother, Teresa.

"He seems a lot more relaxed than what he used to be," Harvick said. "There is probably a lot more stress with the family business and having to answer to his dad's name, and I can kind of relate to that. It's getting into a situation where he is in more control of his own career and it's got to feel more comfortable and more rewarding than the situation that he was in before."

The pressure still remains, though, coming square at him from a rabid fan base that demands the son of the seven-time champion to add a title or two to his name.

Now.

He's ready for it.

"I love the pressure. That means I'm in the middle of it," he said. "I wouldn't change anything about my world as far as in this garage and how I'm treated by my friends and drivers, and really what my position is in this sport. I wouldn't give it up for nothing."

At 33 years old and in the best equipment of his life, Earnhardt no longer has any excuses for falling short in his goals. He's come up empty every year, admitting that he's put winning the championship on his list in each of his previous eight full seasons.

HORNADAY WINS TRUCKS RACE: At Loudon, N.H., Ron Hornaday Jr. took the lead on a restart with 42 laps to go and was out front most of the way en route to a victory Saturday in the Craftsman Truck Series race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Hornaday raced to his series-high fifth victory of the season, holding off a late charge by points leader Johnny Benson to win his second straight race. Hornaday had the truck to beat all day in the 200-lap race, never faltered on his restarts and cruised to victory even as the race was marred late by cautions.

Hornaday, who has a record 38 career truck victories, told ESPN The Magazine earlier this week that he used a testosterone cream during 2004 and 2005 to treat a medical issue. NASCAR met with the reigning series champion on Friday and found no reason to punish Hornaday for the admission.

Hornaday also revealed he has Grave's disease, a condition he is treating with Synthroid, which replaces a hormone normally produced by the thyroid gland to regulate the body's energy and metabolism.

ROSSI WINS POLE FOR INDY MOTOGP: At Indianapolis, Valentino Rossi of Italy won the pole position for Sunday's inaugural Red Bull Indianapolis GP, ending a streak of seven straight poles for Australia's Casey Stoner.

It's the second pole of the season for Rossi, who has won three straight races and leads the MotoGP series by 75 points over Stoner, the defending world champion, with five races to go.

VETTEL YOUNGEST TO TAKE F1 POLE: At Monza, Italy, Sebastian Vettel, 21, of Toro Rosso, will become the youngest Formula One driver to start from the pole position after setting the fastest qualifying session Saturday for the Italian Grand Prix.

The 21-year-old German driver took advantage of the rain-drenched Monza circuit to earn the first pole for him and the team. McLaren's Heikki Kovalainen took second and Red Bull's Mark Webber came third.