BRISTOL, Tenn. — Race fans tailgating at Earhart Campground said they were keeping retired NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his family in their hearts and prayers as they prepared for the Thursday night race at Bristol Motor Speedway.

“We hope and pray things work out for him,” said Bill Barrow, of Mount Juliet, Tennessee. “He and his family are very lucky, very blessed.”

Earnhardt, his wife, daughter, a pilot and co-pilot were aboard a jet that ran off the end of a runway at Elizabethton airport Thursday afternoon, but all walked away from the crash.

Cody Weiss added that Earnhardt and his family are loved by millions.

Earnhardt superfan, Toni Liguori, of Daytona Beach, said she has met Jr. a number of times at race tracks across the country, and she was relieved that he’s fine.

“We love Dale Jr. — he’s a top-notch person, a down-to-earth person. When my husband told me, I was shocked” Liguori said. “I’m in tears right now. He’s the best.”

Stan Cozart, from Rockwell, North Carolina, said he and his family also admire Earnhardt Jr.

“We like him, he’s a good guy and had enough sense to quit when he did.” Cozart said.

Scott Layman who lives near Indianapolis, Indiana, said when he heard about the crash it reminded him of when Earnhardt Jr.’s father, Dale Earnhardt Sr., died in 2001 in a crash at the Daytona 500 and John F. Kennedy Jr. died in a plane crash in 1999. He said he’s glad Earnhardt Jr. and his family made it out safely.

For some longtime race fans, the Thursday afternoon plane crash conjured up memories of NASCAR driver Alan Kulwicki, who died in 1993 when his plane crashed near Blountville.

“I’m a fan of his and was of his daddy,” said Rick Wolfe, of Fall Branch, Tennessee. “This could have been just like Alan Kulwicki a few years back.”

Barrow, who said he was at the Knoxville Hooters restaurant that Kulwicki visited shortly before his death, said Earnhardt Jr. is blessed to have walked away from his plane crash.

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276-645-2512 | lgreiss@bristolnews.com | Twitter: @Leif_Greiss

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