As drivers and teams prepared for Saturday night's Bank of America 500, the fifth race in the Chase, the buzz around Charlotte Motor Speedway continued to focus on the Thursday announcement that Earnhardt, NASCAR's most popular driver, would miss the race -- and the next one at Kansas Speedway.
Earnhardt suffered a concussion in the massive last-lap crash near the end of last week's race at Talladega Superspeedway. Contact in that accident made Earnhardt realize he had not fully recovered from the effects of a vicious crash in testing at Kansas Speedway in August, and the double whammy sent him in search of medical attention.
As a result, Earnhardt is following doctor's orders and will sit for two weeks, ending what already was a fruitless run for the Sprint Cup championship.
Saturday night's race marked the first time since 1979 that a member of the Earnhardt family had not been part of a Cup starting field and the first time since 1961 that a Cup grid rolled off under green without a native North Carolinian.
"For whatever the reason, the wreck at Kansas was just really severe and really surprised me how tough it was to get past that," Earnhardt said. "I thought I was in the clear, but just that little accident at Talladega, I started having headaches and stuff immediately after the wreck, and then into the next day and into Tuesday, and I thought, 'Man, this is pretty soon after the other accident in Kansas. I should probably take this really seriously and seek some professional opinions on this.' "
DRIVER CAROUSEL SPINS
Earnhardt's absence Saturday started a merry-go-round of driver changes that opens up interesting scenarios for the next few weeks.
Upon learning of Earnhardt's need to rest and recover, team owner Rick Hendrick called on Smith, who was scheduled to begin driving this week for Phoenix Racing. There was a vacancy at Phoenix because of the departure of Kurt Busch, who is moving into Smith's old ride at Furniture Row Racing.
When Smith accepted Hendrick's invitation to drive Earnhardt's regular ride -- that decision took him about a millisecond -- it re-opened the cockpit at Phoenix, and it was filled Saturday by the return to NASCAR racing of AJ Allmendinger.
In any other week, Allmendinger's reappearance would be the major story. He was suspended by NASCAR in July after failing a drug test and was reinstated to competition recently after completing NASCAR-mandated rehabilitation. Saturday night marked his first race since the suspension.