NASCAR champ Mike Stefanik, 61, dies in plane crash near Rhode Island

NASCAR champion Michael Stefanik died Sunday in a single-engine plane crash near the Rhode Island state line, police said. He was 61.

Stefanik took off in a single-engine, single-seat Aerolite 103 from the Riconn Airport in Coventry, R.I., and was turning back to the airfield when it crashed in a wooded area near the airport, Connecticut state police said.

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NASCAR confirmed Stefanik was killed in the crash.

“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 in a statement. “His tough, competitive nature and excellence on the race track won him the admiration of fans and competitors alike.”

Stefanik was popular in the NASCAR circles, being named the Busch North Series Most Popular Driver in 1995, 1997, 1998 and 2004. He won the Busch North Series in 1997 and 1998.

He made a name for himself in Whelen Modified Tour circuit winning the championship in 1989, 1991, 1997, 1998, 2001, 2002 and 2006. He was also named as a top 10 all-time driver in the series in 2003.

His nine total championships tie him with Richie Evans for most in NASCAR history.

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He holds the Whelen Modified Tour record with 74 victories from 1985 to 2014.

Stefanik never made it to the NASCAR Cup series, but competed in 26 races each in the Busch (now Xfinity) and Craftsman Truck (now Gander Outdoors) series during his career.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.