Michael Stefanik, former NASCAR champion, dies in plane crash

Former NASCAR driver Michael Stefanik died in a single-engine plane crash in Connecticut on Sunday. He was 61.

According to Connecticut state police, the crash occurred during the afternoon when Stefanik's single-seat Aerolite 103 took off from the Riconn Airport in Coventry, R.I. and crashed into a wooded area in Sterling, near the Rhode Island-Connecticut state line. The plane had been turning back towards the airport when it went down.

Allen Sayles, who witnessed the crash and lives by the airport, noticed the aircraft flying near the tops of trees. Two othe eyewitnesses said that moments after the crash, Stefanik was on his feet "walking" and "talking" near the wreckage. Stefanik suffered serious injuries and burns in the crash and died later in the day at a nearby hospital.

"Mike Stefanik was one of the most successful drivers in NASCAR history, but even more so, he was a true representative of our sport," NASCAR Chairman and CEO Jim France said. "His tough, competitive nature and excellence on the race track won him the respect and admiration of fans and competitors alike. His career stretched more than 30 years, bridging the generations between Jerry Cook and Richie Evans to our current drivers. He recorded achievements in this sport that are likely untouchable, and his legacy as a champion will endure. We will keep his wife Julie and his family and friends in our prayers."

NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. weighed in on the tragedy and expressed his sorrow. Earnhardt was involved in a fiery plane crash last month in Tennessee, but came away unharmed.

Stefanik's daughter, Nicole, also wrote a heartfelt Instagram post about her father.

Stefanik accumulated nine NASCAR championships over the course of his three-decade racing career. The Massachusetts native also won Rookie of the Year in 1999 for his performance in the NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series. During that very same season, Stefanik finished 13th in points and it happened to be the only full season that he had in the Truck Series.

In addition, Stefanik had 65 finishes in the top five and 10 finishes in the top 10 to go along with 12 wins. His last race came in 2005.

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