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Famed racer Earnhardt Jr. and family survive plane crash

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Retired NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt Jr., his wife, Amy, and their year-old daughter, Isla Rose, were involved in a plane crash in Tennessee on Thursday afternoon, Earnhardt’s sister, Kelley Earnhardt Miller, said on Twitter.

Nobody was hurt, Elizabethton Fire Chief Barry Carrier told station WJHL. Elizabethton is 14 miles south of Bristol Motor Speedway, where Earnhardt is scheduled to work this weekend as part of NBC’s broadcast team.

“Everyone is safe and has been taken to the hospital for further evaluation,” Kelley Earnhardt tweeted. 

The family’s two pilots also were involved and were unhurt, Earnhardt Miller said in her tweet.

Federal Aviation Administration officials said a Cessna Citation rolled off the end of a runway and caught fire after landing at Elizabethton Municipal Airport at 3:40 p.m. Thursday. FAA officials said the preliminary indication is that two pilots and three passengers were aboard.

Carter County Sheriff's Office spokesman Thomas Gray confirmed Earnhardt was aboard but said he wasn't one of the pilots.

Videos posted on Twitter showed the plane’s fuselage cracked in two and a combination of flames and black smoke billowing from the opening. Photos taken later showed the plane was almost fully engulfed in flames.

Earnhardt transitioned to the broadcast booth in 2018 after 18 full-time seasons in the NASCAR Cup Series, the highest level of stock car racing. There, Earnhardt emerged as not only one of the sport’s most talented drivers, but also its most marketable.

Following his father’s death in the 2001 Daytona 500, Earnhardt went on to win NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver Award 15 times. His streak, which ran consecutively from 2003 until his retirement in 2017, fell one short of the record held by Hall of Famer Bill Elliott.

This incident comes 26 years after former driver and 1992 Cup champion Alan Kulwicki died in a plane crash while on his way to the spring race at Bristol from a promotional appearance in Knoxville, Tennessee. That crash at Tri-City Regional Airport in Blountville, Tennessee, killed a total of four people.

Earnhardt was part of Rick Hendrick's racing team in 2011 when Hendrick broke a rib and a collarbone while on a small jet that lost its brakes and crash landed in an airport at Key West, Florida. Hendrick's son, brother and twin nieces were among 10 people killed in a 2004 crash of a plane traveling to a race in Virginia.

This isn't the first fiery crash for Earnhardt. He still has a burn scar on his neck from a crash at Sonoma in 2004 during warmups for an American Le Mans Series race that left him with second-degree burns.

When fellow NASCAR stars Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Danica Patrick left the sport in recent seasons, Earnhardt emerged as the face of NASCAR. He also served as racing’s public voice of sorts, speaking out about social justice issues.

Earnhardt reached that status without ever winning a championship at NASCAR’s highest level. He did win 26 races over the course of his career, including the prestigious Daytona 500 twice.

Earnhardt announced that he would be retiring from full-time Cup Series racing in 2017 because of concerns about previous head injuries and wanting to start a family. Earnhardt remains active in the sport as a race analyst for NBC.

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