CONCORD, N.C. -- Taking attention from a hotly contested Chase for the Sprint Cup in the middle of NASCAR's version of the playoffs isn't easy. But you have a shot if your name happens to be Earnhardt.
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 Dale Earnhardt Jr., easily NASCAR's most popular driver, would miss the race -- and the next one at Kansas Speedway -- because of health issues.
Earnhardt Jr. 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 Jr. 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 Jr. 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 will mark the first time since 1979 that a member of the Earnhardt family has not been part of a Cup starting field and the first time since 1961 that a Cup grid has 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 Jr. 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 Jr.'s absence from Saturday night's race started a merry-go-round of driver changes that opens up interesting scenarios for the next few weeks.
Upon learning of Earnhardt Jr.'s need to rest and recover, team owner Rick Hendrick called on substitute driver Regan 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 Jr.'s regular ride -- that decision took him about a milli-second -- that reopened the cockpit at Phoenix, and it will be filled Saturday night 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 will mark his first race since the suspension.