Veteran NASCAR driver and television commentator Neil Bonnett’s comeback attempt ended when he died Friday during a practice session for the Daytona 500.

Bonnett’s death at the start of this season was a difficult blow for NASCAR and its fans. Two of the sport’s most popular drivers, Davey Allison and Alan Kulwicki, died in separate aviation accidents last season.

Attempting a comeback after three serious wrecks in the past seven years, Bonnett, 47, lost control of his Chevrolet on the fourth turn of the 2.5-mile oval at Daytona International Speedway. According to eyewitnesses, Bonnett was low on the track coming out of the third turn before heading straight into the outside wall in the fourth turn.

”It’s just stunning,” said driver Darrell Waltrip, who was Bonnett’s teammate from 1984 to ’86 when the two drove for Junior Johnson. ”You come here and you’ve got high hopes and high expectations, and something happens that just sets you back. You just feel so sick inside.”

Bonnett, a native of Hueytown, Ala., was part of NASCAR’s ”Alabama Gang.” Three of the six members – Bonnett, Davey Allison and Clifford Allison – have died in the past two years.

”The Alabama Gang. Whew!” Waltrip said. ”It’s almost like that movie, `Gunfight at the OK Corral.’ It’s taken its toll on the Alabama Gang.”

Bonnett, who won 18 Winston Cup races in his career, was involved in a 1987 crash in Charlotte, N.C., that crushed his leg. He returned 12 weeks after that incident, but retired three years later after a crash at Darlington (S.C.) International Speedway left him with severe head injuries.

He became a color commentator for CBS and The Nashville Network and was host of the TNN television show ”Winners.”

Bonnett returned to racing briefly last season, running two races for Richard Childress Racing in Dale Earnhardt’s backup car. Bonnett’s car became airborne in a crash at Talladega last July, but he walked away unharmed, returning to run one lap at the season-ending Hooters 500 in Atlanta.

Diver Jerry Hill was behind Bonnett during his wreck Friday.

”All I saw was him spinning toward the apron, and then he went head-on into the wall,” Hill said. ”I had to put on my brakes to keep from hitting him. When he came down, he came back down on the apron and went back up again. It was real close.

”It just seemed like he lost control for some reason.”

Driver Kyle Petty, who was in front of Bonnett, said he thought a strong gust of wind might have pushed Bonnett’s car toward the outside wall and caused him to lose control.

Hill speculated that Bonnett might have hit a slick spot on the track. The track had been shut down shortly before the accident to clean up after Rick Mast dropped his driveshaft in turns 1 and 2.

But officials said the entire track had been checked for oil during the 10-minute break in practice.

”The best we can tell, it was driver error,” NASCAR spokesman Chip Williams said.

Bonnett was transported to Halifax Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead at 1:17 p.m.

No cause of death was given, but officials said Bonnett incurred massive head injuries.


* AUG. ’89: Driver Tim Richmond dies from AIDS.

* NOV. ’89: Driver Grant Adcox dies in race in Hampton, Ga.

* OCT. ’90: Driver Rob Moroso, the rookie of the year, dies in a traffic crash in North Carolina.

* NOV. ’90: Crewman Mike Rich dies in a pit accident in Hampton, Ga.

* AUG. ’91: Driver J.D. McDuffie dies during race in Watkins Glen, N.Y.

* APRIL ’93: Driver Alan Kulwicki dies in the crash of a private plane in Tennessee.

* JULY ’93: Driver Davey Allison dies of injuries from the crash of a helicopter in Alabama.

* FEB. ’94: Driver Neil Bonnett dies in a crash during practice at Daytona International Speedway.


Drivers who have died in race crashes in NASCAR’s top stock car series, now known as the Winston Cup, since 1952:

* 1. Larry Mann, 1952, Langhorne, Pa.

* 2. Frank Arford, 1953, Langhorne, Pa.

* 3. Lou Figaro, 1954, North Wilkesboro, N.C.

* 4. John McVitty, 1956, Langhorne, Pa.

* 5. Clint McHugh, 1956, Memphis, Tenn.

* 6. Thomas Priddy, 1956, Memphis, Tenn.

* 7. Bobby Myers, 1957, Darlington, S.C.

* 8. Gwyn Staley, 1958, Richmond.

* 9. Joe Weatherly, 1964, Riverside, Calif.

* 10. Glenn ”Fireball” Roberts, 1964, Charlotte, N.C.

* 11. Jimmy Pardue, 1964, Charlotte, N.C.

* 12. Billy Wade, 1965, Daytona Beach, Fla.

* 13. Buren Skeen, 1965, Darlington, S.C.

* 14. Harold Kite, 1965, Charlotte, N.C.

* 15. Billy Foster, 1967, Riverside, Calif.

* 16. Talmadge Prince, 1970, Daytona Beach, Fla.

* 17. Raymond ”Friday” Hassler, 1971, Daytona Beach, Fla.

* 18. Larry Smith, 1973, Talladega, Ala.

* 19. Tiny Lund, 1975, Talladega, Ala.

* 20. Ricky Knotts, 1980, Daytona Beach, Fla.

* 21. Terry Schoonover, 1984, Hampton, Ga.

* 22. Bruce Jacobi, 1987 (injured in 1983), Daytona Beach, Fla.

* 23. Grant Adcox, 1989, Hampton, Ga.

* 24. J.D. McDuffie, 1991, Watkins Glen, N.Y.

* 25. Neil Bonnett, 1994, Daytona Beach, Fla.

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