That was the word circulating Bristol Motor Speedway Friday after the former NASCAR driver and NBC racing analyst, his wife Amy, their daughter and two pilots were involved in a crash Thursday afternoon at Elizabethton Municipal Airport.
Earnhardt Jr., who remains one of NASCAR’s most popular figures even after his retirement from the sport two years ago, was coming into Elizabethton on his way to BMS as part of the broadcast team for NBC Sports coverage of the NASCAR action at the track this weekend — including the Xfinity Series Food City 300 and the Monster Energy Cup Series Bass Pro Shops, NRA Night Race.
According to multiple reports, the airplane went off the end of the runway. Earnhardt Jr. and his family, the pilots and an Earnhardt family dog all escaped the plane before it went up in flames.
The Earnhardt family returned to their North Carolina home Thursday.
Kelley Earnhardt Miller, Dale Jr.’s sister and general manager of JR Motorsports, tweeted Thursday afternoon that all were safe.
“I can confirm Dale, Amy & Isla along with his two pilots were involved in a crash in Bristol TN this afternoon. Everyone is safe and has been taken to the hospital for further evaluation. We have no further information at this time. Thank you for your understanding,” she said in the Thursday tweet.
Many NASCAR drivers and former drivers, along with NBC Sports, Larry McReynolds of Fox Sports and several others retweeted the post and added their own thanks that all were safe.
On Friday, former Monster Energy NASCAR Cup champion Kevin Harvick offered his thoughts on the crash.
“First off, I’m just glad everybody is OK,” he said. “I think as you put it all into perspective and you really realize the amount of time that you spend in an airplane and all the places that you go and thing that you do and the amount of time that is required to travel, it’s definitely a reminder of things that can happen. But just thank God everybody is OK because you look at the pictures and all the things that went on, it’s amazing that everybody is OK and, in the end, that’s the best part of the scenario.”
Clint Bowyer, a driver for Stewart-Haas Racing, said the incident was a stark reminder of how quick things can change in life.
“We were driving up the road and all of the sudden your phone starts blowing up. It’s always scary for me,” said Bowyer. “The kids actually — Presley, she started dropping cylinders. We had an explosion on whatever exit it was. We had to pull over and take care of that and my phone rang literally like six or seven times while this is going on.
“By the time I got out of the gas station and got our mess cleaned up, I realized that Dale was in trouble and it just takes your breath away. Those are people that are our friends, family of NASCAR and when you see them in trouble like that, you see that video, that hits home.”
Last year’s Night Race winner, Kurt Busch, echoed his fellow drivers.
“I’m glad he’s OK and the family is OK and the pilots. It’s a tough situation,” Busch said. “We’ll miss him this weekend. His motorhome was parked next to mine and they were leaving as we were pulling in. It’s just tough when you’re missing a good friend from the racetrack.”
Miller issued a statement on Friday afternoon regarding the incident: “We want to reiterate our appreciation to the NASCAR community, first responders, medical staff, and race fans everywhere for the overwhelming support in the last 24 hours. Dale, Amy, Isla and our two pilots are doing well. We are assisting the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board in the investigation and will have no further comment at this time.”
After suffering a concussion in 2016 – not his first – that sidelined him for 16 races during the season, Earnhardt Jr., who was named NASCAR’s most popular driver a record-setting 14 times, announced 2017 would be his last season in the Monster Energy Cup series.
Earnhardt Jr. had 26 wins during his career in NASCAR’s top circuit.
Last year, he started his career as race analyst for NBC Sports.