Seven time Winston Cup Champion and Motor Racing legend Dale Earnhardt has been killed in a last lap accident at the Daytona International Speedway after hitting the outside wall of Turn Four at the 2.5-mile banked Superspeedway.

The Motor Racing world sits, stunned, this evening as details filter through of the accident that has claimed the life of Dale Earnhardt, one of, if not, the most revered men in Winston Cup history, is dead.

Not since Ayrton Senna perished during the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix has the Motorsports family been shaken to the core by such a tragic event and the death of the 49 year old, seven time Winston Cup Champion, has cast a dark cloud over the entire year, in which we have already lost several well known figureheads.

What makes things even more difficult to stomach is that the fatal accident occurred on the very final corner of what had up until that point been one of the most exciting Daytona 500's in recent memory that saw Michael Waltrip, driving a Dale Earnhardt owned car, win his first ever Winston Cup event by inches from the heir to the Earnhardt throne, Dale Earnhardt Jr. What should have been one of the Earnhardt family's finest moments has been transformed into the most tragically poignant.

Waltrip and his crew can be forgiven a thousand times for their Victory Lane celebrations, the culmination over of a decades hard work for Waltrip and the dream start for his new team, as can Darrell Waltrip, who tearfully cheered his younger brother on from his new position inside the commentary booth, for no-one could have possibly imagined what was to filter out in the following minutes and hours.

The accident occurred as the lead pack of about a dozen cars came into Turn Three for the final time with Earnhardt running third, between Sterling Marlin and Ken Schrader. As the cars rounded Turn Three, Marlin's car, running below Earnhardt appeared to take the air away from the No.3 Chevrolet, which then swung violently outwards towards the wall and into the helpless Schrader. Earnhardt's machine, with Schrader's Pontiac entangled in the side, and then veered almost head on into the outside retaining wall and slid down the track, thankfully avoiding the oncoming traffic.

As the crowd's attention turned to the finish line, Schrader instantly beckoned the medical team over to Earnhardt's car and as Waltrip was celebrating in the Winner's Circle, unaware of the events behind him, second place finisher Earnhardt Jr was already sprinting down pit-lane to try and find out the condition of his father.

NASCAR's safety team reportedly had to cut the unconscious driver from the crumpled Goodwrench Tools machine before he was airlifted to the nearby Halifax Medical Research centre where he was pronounced dead more than an hour later.

The level of grief shared by the NASCAR community is hard to comprehend as the name Earnhardt is etched in the very foundations of the sport over the past 25 years. As the career of 'The King' Richard Petty began to wind down, Earnhardt stepped into his shoes and filled them admirably, winning seven Winston Cup titles and 76 Winston Cup events on his way to become THE most recognisable faces in American Motorsport.

His partnership with Richard Childress began in 1981 when Earnhardt, having won his first Winston Cup title the previous year, made eleven starts for the RCR team, recording a pair of fourth place finishes but it wouldn't be until 1984 that the two linked up again, this time for good. Over the next 16 years, Earnhardt raised hell on the NASCAR tour, winning consistently and making a great name for himself with his tough on track tactics. In short, he personified 'The Good 'ol Boys' of NASCAR and for many years he was the man the fans loved to hate.

Taking the Winston Cup titles in 1986, 1987, 1990, 1991, 1993 and 1994, Earnhardt looked set to beat Richard Petty's record of eight Winston Cup Championship's but the emergence of 'Wonder Boy' Jeff Gordon halted Earnhardt's run when he was just one short.

While you would find it hard pressed to find two more different people, Gordon was suddenly the man winning everything and Earnhardt was restored as the fans favourite, rapidly becoming the most popular driver on the circuit and the man that everyone loved to cheer as he continued with his no-holds-barred style in an increasingly corporate age.

The long awaited Daytona 500 triumph finally came in 1998 and last season the 49-yearold Earnhardt showed he could still mix it with the best of them as he took second spot in the Championship to Bobby Labonte in a year where he rediscovered his touch of winning from the pack and fighting his way to the front.

It was trying for a second Daytona 500 triumph that Earnhardt met his end, as usual, battling as hard as he could doing the thing he loved best and while the affect his passing has, on a day of new TV packages and sponsorship deals and commentary teams, will only truly be seen in the days and weeks that follow, what should have been NASCAR's shining light has now been plunged into darkness.

As hurried rumours abound signalling the demise of America's fastest growing sport and people struggle to put into words their thoughts and feelings of what has unfolded in Florida this afternoon, the strength of family and character within the NASCAR fraternity will only now show through for what it is for although these words may seem cold comfort for those directly, and indirectly, affected by today's events, NASCAR is Motorsports closest family and they will gather round, re-group and move on, stronger and closer than ever.

But tonight, the family is weeping.