NASCAR Star Dale Earnhardt Dies in Race

Dale Earnhardt, one of the greatest drivers in auto racing history, died today from injuries suffered in a last-lap crash at the Daytona 500.

The 49-year-old stock car legend was traveling 180 mph, when his car was tapped from behind, turned around and sent head-on into a wall, only moments before his teammate Michael Waltrip and his son Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished the race in first and second places.

Earnhardt Sr. never regained consciousness after the crash.

He was cut free from his vehicle and transported to Halifax Medical Center with his son Dale, Jr. by his side. Earnhardt was pronounced dead soon after arrival, Dr. Steve Bohannon said.

"This is undoubtedly one of the toughest announcements that I've ever had to personally make," said NASCAR president Mike Helton, "but after the accident in turn four at the Daytona 500 we've lost Dale Earnhardt."

‘The Intimidator’ Behind the Wheel; A Thoughtful Friend Off the Track

Earnhardt — nicknamed "The Intimidator" — was known for his aggressive, hard-charging driving style, but off the track, friends and fan described him as thoughtful and generous.

"No one more respected and loved by other race drivers — those in racing and fans — than Dale Earnhardt," said ESPN NASCAR commentator Ed Dubrow.

"He will be missed and we don't have to wait for history to know that he was one of the greatest."

The 7-time Winston Cup champion had won the Daytona 500 in 1998, in his 20th appearance in the event. With a total of 76 Winston Cup victories, including 34 on the Daytona track, Earnhardt was most active driver on the circuit.

Other drivers marveled at Earnhardt's uncanny ability to position himself behind other cars, using them to cut through the wind and make his vehicle more aerodynamic.

Earnhardt is survived by his wife and 4 children, including his son Dale Jr.

‘Auto Racing’s Michael Jordan’

"We have lost our Michael Jordan, our Tiger Woods, and it's been a terrible day, it's left a black hole in this sport that we won't see filled for a long time," said H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler, president of Lowes Motor Speedway in Charlotte, N.C., and a long-time friend of Earnhardt.

Earnhardt's family was centered around auto racing. His father Ralph Earnhardt was a champion on small-track races, but never achieved success in higher-profile events such as NASCAR races.

Dr. Jerry Punch, a racing analyst for ESPN, said Earnhardt was protecting his teammates when the fatal accident occurred.

"He stayed there and ran a 180-185 mph screen," Punch noted.

Earnhardt was trying to block another driver, Sterling Marlin, from gaining on his teammates Earnhardt Jr. and Waltrip.

Marlin's car bumped his Chevrolet and set it spinning into the wall, where it was broadsided by Kevin Schrader.

Accident Fuels Debate Over Safety

There have been two other fatalities from similar accidents around turns, raising concerns about a possible systematic problem.

The Lowes Motor Speedway installed a form of foam on the turn walls to try to prevent similar accidents.

Sunday's fatal crash is the biggest blow to the sport since Ayrton Senna, a three-time Formula One champion, died at Italy's San Marino Grand Prix in 1994.

NASCAR drivers Neil Bonnet and Rodney Orr were also killed in separate crashes in 1994, both while practicing for the Daytona 500.

Earnhardt himself had crashed at Daytona in 1997, flipping his vehicle but emerging without serious injury.

Winston Cup Driver Kenny Irwin was killed at the New Hampshire International Speedway last year, two months after Busch Series driver Adam Petty was killed in a crash on the same turn.

ABCNEWS.com's Oliver Libaw and ABCNEWS Radio's Ed Dubrow and Dave Maier contributed to this report.

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