ROCKINGHAM, N.C. (AP) -- Dale Earnhardt's lap belt was found to be broken after the stock car racing champion was fatally injured in a crash at the Daytona 500, NASCAR officials said Friday.
"A broken left lap seat belt came apart," NASCAR president Mike Helton said. "We don't know how, when or where, yet. We will continue our investigation."
Dr. Steve Bohannon, the head of emergency medical services at Daytona International Speedway, speculated that with the broken belt, Earnhardt's body could have been thrown forward and to the right, sending him flying into the steering wheel.
"I do support further neck and head restraints, but I'm not convinced the HANS device would have made a difference in this case," Bohannon said.
The HANS device is a restraint system that fits around the neck and is attached by strap to the helmet and frame of the car. It's intended to keep the neck from hyperextending when the body is thrown forward or to the side during a violent crash.
Bohannon said Earnhardt might have hit his chin on the steering wheel, causing the major head injury that killed him.
"Mr. Earnhardt more than likely contacted the steering wheel with his face," Bohannon said.
Richard Childress, Earnhardt's longtime car owner, said the seat belts were standard and were new when the car was built last November.
Gary Nelson, the Winston Cup director, showed a similar lap belt, part of a five-point harness, and described how the webbing near the lower left buckle, holding the lap belt atop the car frame, came apart.
He would not say how the material came apart, whether it was cut, frayed or in any other way damaged.
"All we know conclusively is the belt came apart," Nelson said. "We've never seen it, we've talked to people in the business and they say they've never seen it in 52 years of NASCAR racing."
Helton said NASCAR was not contemplating any safety changes for Sunday's race at North Carolina Speedway. He said Earnhardt's battered Chevrolet was still being looked at by experts and that safety experts also will study the broken belt.
He said the most important thing about the information on the broken belt was that it be passed on to all the crew chiefs in the Winston Cup and Busch series garages here and at a truck race next week at Homestead, Fla.
Earnhardt, 49, died instantly in a last-lap crash last Sunday.
He was buried near his Kannapolis, N.C., home Wednesday,
Childress, who also fields a car for Mike Skinner, will have rookie Kevin Harvick in a second car Sunday in the Dura Lube 400.
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