Dale Earnhardt Jr. opened his weekly podcast Monday by thanking his fans for the support they’ve shown since he and his family survived a plane crash last week in Tennessee.
As Earnhardt spoke, his 15-month-old daughter Isla could be heard chirping happily away in the background.
What a sweet sound that was.
News of the crash -- which happened when Earnhardt’s private plane bounced multiple times and veered off a runway in Elizabethton, Tenn., before ending up in flames on a highway -- was a sobering reminder of the inherent risks that come from the common practice of NASCAR drivers and teams flying in private planes to races and other events.
Earnhardt, 44, no longer drives full-time; he retired after the 2017 season and is now a commentator for NBC, for which he was going to broadcast last weekend’s race at Bristol Motor Speedway.
And he remains, perhaps, the most popular and beloved figure in the sport.
What happened at Elizabethton Municipal Airport, where Earnhardt, his wife Amy, Isla, two pilots and the family dog walked away from the burning plane relatively unscathed, forced an entire sport to take a collective gasp. Then there was a sigh of relief.
“We’re trying to process what we’ve been going through,” Earnhardt said on the podcast. “We appreciate the privacy. It’s been a very difficult few days for everybody. Me and my wife are trying our best to get back to normal as soon as possible.”
The accident (which as of earlier this week was still being investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board) struck a very raw nerve in NASCAR.
Air disasters have not been uncommon in the sport. Alan Kulwicki, the 1992 Cup champion, was killed in a crash in Blountville, Tenn., in 1993. Davey Allison died in 1993 in a helicopter crash in Talladega, Ala. In 2004, a Hendrick Motorsports plane crashed in Virginia, killing 10 people, including team owner Rick Hendrick’s brother, son and nieces. Race team owner Jack Roush, who has a private license, has survived two crashes.
It also brought memories of one of the darkest days in NASCAR history, when Earnhardt’s father Dale Earnhardt Sr. died in a last-lap crash during the 2001 Daytona 500.
Gratefully, the unthinkable didn’t happen last week in Tennessee. But the accident served as a reminder that NASCAR -- which is struggling to keep its foothold in the broader American sports landscape -- has its own, unique treasures, and Earnhardt Jr. is one of them.
“We just really appreciate all the support,” Dale Jr. said on his podcast. “It’s meant a lot to us. We want you to know that. We’ll be seeing you soon.”