ROCKINGHAM, N.C. (AP) -- Dale Earnhardt's lap belt was found broken after the crash that killed him near the finish line of the Daytona 500, NASCAR officials said Friday.
Earnhardt, 49, might have survived Sunday's crash if the cloth belt had held, a doctor said.
''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, 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, thrusting him into the steering wheel.
Bohannon, who tried to save Earnhardt's life as the driver sat slumped in the wreckage, said Earnhardt's chin might have hit the steering wheel, causing the major head injury that killed him on impact. A skull fracture ran from the front to the back of his brain.
''Mr. Earnhardt more than likely contacted the steering wheel with his face,'' Bohannon said.
''If his restraint system -- his belts -- had held, he would have had a much better chance of survival,'' he said.
Like most drivers at the 500 Sunday, Earnhardt had shunned the use of the U-shaped HANS device -- for Head And Neck Support -- which many drivers find bulky and uncomfortable.
''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 device fits around the neck and is attached by strap to the helmet and frame of the car.
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 or whether it was cut, frayed or damaged in any other way.
''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.''
The death of the popular Earnhardt, a seven-time Winston Cup champion, in the last lap of the Daytona 500 stunned the racing world and led to calls for better safety measures.
Earnhardt was buried in a private service on Wednesday in his hometown of Kannapolis. On Thursday, thousands of people gathered to honor him at a memorial service.
Helton said NASCAR was not contemplating any safety changes for Sunday's race at North Carolina Speedway. He said experts were still looking at Earnhardt's battered Chevrolet and will also study the broken belt.
He said information on the broken belt will be passed on to crew chiefs in the Winston Cup and Busch series here and at a truck race next week at Homestead, Fla.
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