Fontana Notebook: Sunday

FONTANA, Calif. – Just five days after Dale Earnhardt’s fatal accident at the Daytona 500, NASCAR officials stood before the media – and thus the rest of the country – and explained that the seven-time champion’s lap belt had broken and even speculated as to how it could have contributed to his death after his car hit the outside wall during the final lap of the Daytona 500.

“The best way to describe this is that the integrity of the restraint system was extremely compromised,” said NASCAR Winston Cup Director Gary Nelson. “If the belt would have held, it would have most likely resulted in a different set of injuries,” said the doctor NASCAR brought to its press conference.

Since that time, Bill Simpson (whose company produced the belt) and a medical expert who viewed Earnhardt’s autopsy photos, have suggested the belts didn’t have anything to do with the tragedy.

Now, another party close to the accident on Feb. 18 has stepped to the plate and says not only was the belt not broken, but NASCAR – which is doing its own investigation - hasn’t even questioned him about the events following the accident.

“I did not see any broken cuts of the seat belt,” Tommy Propst – one of the first emergency medical technicians to reach the scene of the accident – told the Orlando Sentinel newspaper. He said he and the other EMTs had to make repeated attempts to loosen the seat belt.

“And if they (NASCAR) are doing this big investigation, why wouldn’t they want to know the truth,” Propst said. “Why wouldn’t they interview the one who took the seat belt off?”

It’s an issue that NASCAR officials were not willing to talk about Sunday at California Speedway.

The seat belt in question has still yet to be seen by anyone outside of NASCAR’s investigation.

Propst, a 24-year veteran EMT and firefighter, said he reached Earnhardt less than 30 seconds after his car came to rest after sliding down the fourth turn banking.

“When it (the seat belt) finally came loose, it came loose,” Propst said. “I did not see any broken cuts of the seat belt. It was in one piece at the time.”

NASCAR, which says it's holding its own investigation but won’t disclose the names of those conducting the investigation, has hopes of announcing its findings in a few months.

Busch Gets Early Penalty: Kurt Busch’s chances to top his career-best Winston Cup finish of third last weekend at Talladega were hindered before the rookie driver even took the green flag on Sunday at California.

Busch came down pit road during the parade laps prior to the race, saying he thought he’d cut down a tire. It’s not against the rules to change tires if there's a problem before the race, but Busch’s crew went a step too far for NASCAR’s liking when they also added fuel, drawing a one-lap penalty.

Though he started the event a lap down, Busch fought his way back and even returned to the lead lap for a while when he passed then-leader Rusty Wallace on Lap 152. He had a tire go down about 20 laps later, and once again became a lap down.

That wasn't enough to make the rookie call it quits, though, as he fought back once again, earned his lap back and finished an impressive 13th.

Earnhardt Honored: The late Dale Earnhardt was honored on Sunday at California with a moment of silence as three white doves were released and flew alongside each other down the front straightaway.

And per usual at every Winston Cup race since his death, the fans in attendance held up three fingers as a tribute on the third lap.

Points Leader Penalized: Dale Jarrett was coasting right along on Sunday and looking to extend his NASCAR Winston Cup points lead over Jeff Gordon. However, on the second pit stop of the race, members of his pit crew left the fuel catch-can attached to the rear of his Ford, prompting NASCAR officials to bring him back into the pits for a 15-second penalty.

Jarrett returned to the track running well outside the Top 20, but luckily there was a caution during his catch-can problem, and he was able to remain on the lead lap.

Jarrett could never quite make a run towards the front, though, and finished 24th.

Rich Racing: Prior to the conclusion of Sunday’s race at California, there were nine drivers who had earned more than $1 million in winnings through the first nine races of the 2001 season.

Leading that list was Jeff Gordon with almost $2.4 million, followed by Daytona 500 winner Michael Waltrip with more than $1.7 million. The other seven drivers are, in order, Dale Jarrett, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Rusty Wallace, Ricky Rudd, Steve Park, Bobby Labonte and Bill Elliott.

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