By Reid Spencer, NASCAR Wire Service
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
KANSAS CITY, Kan. -- It was a sheepish Rick Hendrick who visited the Kansas Speedway media center in the middle of Sunday's Hollywood Casino 400, backtracking on a earlier statement that Dale Earnhardt Jr. had been cleared to race next weekend at Martinsville.
In fact, Earnhardt still has two hurdles to clear -- a closed test at Gresham Motorsports Park in Georgia on Monday and a visit with neurologist Dr. Jerry Petty on Tuesday -- before he can return. Earnhardt was held out of the No. 88 at Charlotte and Kansas while recovering from two recent concussions.
Before Sunday's race, Hendrick told reporters that Earnhardt already had been cleared to return to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series in the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet. Hendrick said later that he had neglected to read his e-mails Sunday morning.
From what he's heard from the doctors, however, Hendrick expressed confidence that Earnhardt will be cleared to race at the .526-mile short track.
"I will be shocked if he's not in the car," Hendrick said. "Everything looks good. His attitude and the way he feels; he's had no headaches since Thursday or Friday of Charlotte (Oct. 11-12); and the tests have gone real well.
"I think Dr. Petty is just being super-cautious, and I applaud him for that. I think the sequence is that he (Dr. Petty) will be with him at the test Monday; they will evaluate him in his office Tuesday, and then he will notify NASCAR if he's okay. Maybe I just heard what I wanted to hear when I talked to (Dr.) Petty because everything in Pittsburgh (where Earnhardt was tested recently) was good."
HAMLIN LOSES GROUND
Though Denny Hamlin avoided the wrecks that accounted for a track-record 14 cautions on Sunday, he nevertheless experienced his share of bad luck.
Twice Hamlin was trapped a lap down when cautions interrupted cycles of green-flag pit stops, and for most of his runs in Sunday's race, Hamlin was forced to conserve fuel.
"Just never got a chance to race," lamented Hamlin, who came home 13th and remained third in the Chase standings, but lost five points to leader Brad Keselowski and now trails by 20. "Every run, I had to save fuel or get caught by a caution and then go a lap down, get a wave-around.
"We had good track position (starting ninth). I drove to the top five on the first run, and then we took four (tires) and the entire field took two and put us in the back of the pack. We were no better than the back-markers at that point."
SOLID FINISH FOR SMITH
In what was likely his last race as a substitute driver for Dale Earnhardt Jr., Regan Smith brought the No. 88 Chevrolet home in seventh. Smith was battling Paul Menard for the third spot before Sam Hornish Jr. clobbered the Turn 1 wall on Lap 236 to cause the 14th and final caution.
On the subsequent restart on Lap 240, Smith was shuffled back but held on for his fourth top 10 of the season.
"The track conditions were difficult," Smith said. "I think a lot of it was just overdone by guys maybe not being smart on restarts, from what I saw. Everybody was fighting for the bottom. You didn't want to lose positions on the top side, but then the top side would come in as runs would go on, so that was kind of weird.
"All the guys on the National Guard/Diet Mountain Dew Chevy did a hell of a job these past two weeks. We had arguably a better car last week (before an engine failure), had we had a chance to run the whole race. It's been nice to be able to step in and have them treat me like their normal driver."