WARREN -  AUGUST4:  A Chevrolet 2011 Cruze ECO is shown being tested at the world's largest automotive wind tunnel during a General Motors commemoration of the 30th anniversary of its Aerodynamics Laboratory at the General Motors Aerodynamics Laboratory August 4, 2010 in Warren, Michigan. The tunnel features a 43-foot diameter fan that uses laminated spruce blades that can generate wind speeds in excess of 130 miles per hour. (Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)
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Kligerman: NASCAR teams blowing money on an idea whose time has gone with the wind

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If I asked “What is the sport’s single biggest issue?” to 10 people in racing, nine would have a single-word reply.

Money.

The other would rant about something to the effect of “Better back in ’86! Cuz Earnnnnhardt! Real tracks! Real men! Marlboro Reds!” Anyone my age or 20 years my senior would agree out of fear but counter with a tepid smile and say, “The racing is better now.”

And it is, but for some reason I can’t explain, we continually self-inflict pain in the form of unnecessary expenditures.

Back in 2011, I was driving for Brad Keselowski Racing, which was then a small, upstart truck series team (it since has evolved into a major contender with significant Ford support). It was my first chance at a full-time ride in NASCAR.

The deal came together incredibly late for this young, naive, hopeful driver. The ride was supposed to go to someone who had more funding. I had fended them off using the incredible dark witchcraft of … a cell phone.

Months into the endeavor, our corporate helpers had arranged quite an exciting opportunity. Our small team would get “wind tunnel time,” which is how it works for most. The manufacturer buys a massive quantity of hours and then resells or allocates time to teams.

In modern-day racing, this is the equivalent of an Old West miner using a machine to sort through mountain sides. No guarantee of success, but he should be able to find gold a lot quicker.

But wind tunnel time is more expensive than gold. An hour in the more advanced of the two wind tunnels in Charlotte, N.C., can cost upward of $8,000.

The current price of an ounce of gold? $1,213

For my small team, it potentially meant discovering all the secret aerodynamic bits that the rest of the teams already knew. Our gold would come in the form of increased speed.

With very limited engineering staff, our team went to the wind tunnel. And as young drivers do to show we are willing to “learn,” I went along.

After what seemed an eternity of setup and calibration, the wind tunnel fired to life. About 3 minutes later, it all started to quiet down.

I had seen nothing. You couldn’t see the air. It was simply a loud noise. Then everything stopped.

We hovered around a small laptop to see the downforce numbers. To our dismay, the gains were nil. No worries, we had eight more hours to figure it out.

Over the next eight hours. I believe we found about a half-count of downforce. On the last run, I had grown angry as a 20-year-old driver who put everything on the line and raised an insane amount of money to simply race in circles.

It all seemed insane.

Instead of air flowing over the truck, I imagined dollar bills gracefully flowing over the front nose, the windshield and the roof. The wasted cash slammed forcefully into the spoiler and then disappeared into the exhaust tunnel, eventually funneling directly into the pockets of the owner of this building and its giant fan.

Here we were wasting time trying to learn something everyone in the sport already knew. It was incredibly frustrating to spend so many precious dollars with zero quantifiable gain for the sport.

(EDITOR’S NOTE: A brief history on wind tunnels. They initially were constructed more than 100 years ago for the study of air over solid objects and were used in early airplane development, military applications and the space program — one of the most famous tunnels is adjacent to a NASA research base in Langley, Va. The automobile and racing industries discovered practical uses for cars in wind tunnels around the same time.  As seen in the photo with this column, tunnels still remain used for development of Detroit production lines structured around optimizing fuel efficiency )

In the early years of auto racing, aerodynamics were as mysterious as the outer reaches of space. But in the last 15 years, I would argue that nothing of actual real world value has been gained from rolling a stock car into a wind tunnel.

The basics and the complexities are all known quantities. We are simply spending money within a very small box, all trying to reach the exact same conclusion.

The worst part is the byproduct: Consistently allowing the racing to become more aero dependent. No matter how often we lower the spoiler, or cut the splitter or change the rules. The teams will go to the wind tunnel and gain it back. It’s one of the world’s most expensive games of cat and mouse.

And I guarantee that no fan has ever said to another, “Man I just love that Matt Kenseth is leading this race because he has 20 more counts of downforce that his engineers found in the wind tunnel over Jimmie Johnson in second place.”

If those words ever have been uttered, I will eat one of the Nike shoes I wore on my ride up to Colossus at Bristol.

The thing is, we simply need to aim at providing our fans with great racing. Because the teams and manufacturers all know how generally to approach aerodynamics, there are no secrets anymore. There’s just unnecessary engineering for the sake of existence.

It’s a bit like a single young man who desperately wants a girlfriend. He buys expensive clothes, gets a snazzy haircut with expensive gel and buys a car he can’t possibly afford — all to impress a young lass.

Eventually they meet, and after 10 minutes of initially seeming madly in love, she’ll tell him she really just loves him for his jokes, laugh and kind nature — and hates his very expensive “ugly car.”

He therefore decides to buy more expensive clothes and a more expensive car.

It’s this sort of waste of precious dollars that is causing the biggest issue in racing.

We don’t have a funding problem. We have a spending problem.

And the wind tunnel uses its turbine fins to whip up an exorbitant amount of that spending.

Let’s ban the wind tunnels and stop this conspicuous consumption.

My proposition is to allow the manufacturers two full days of wind tunnel time at the beginning of each season. They are allowed to bring two cars of their choice from each series in which they race. After their two days are up, no NASCAR vehicle can enter a wind tunnel until the next year.

Compared to the 300-plus hours Cup teams annually spend in wind tunnels, this would be the largest cost savings the sport has seen.

I know there is one entity that will strongly disagree: The owners of the wind tunnels. But I am sorry. My fear is if we don’t do this soon, wind tunnels will face a lack of business anyway. Not because of an indifference to knowledge.

Because there won’t be any race teams left to gain the knowledge.

Starting lineups for the Can-Am Duel qualifying races

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Daytona 500 pole-winner Chase Elliott will lead the field to the green flag in the first of two Can-Am Duel qualifying races Thursday night at Daytona International Speedway.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., who secured the No. 2 starting spot for the Daytona 500, will lead the field to the green in the second of the qualifying races.

Those races will set the rest of the Daytona 500 starting lineup.

Click here for Daytona Duel 1 starting lineup

Click here for Daytona Duel 2 starting lineup

With 36 spots guaranteed to charter teams, four teams are vying for the final two spots — Brendan Gaughan and Elliott Sadler already secured two of the four spots for non-chartered teams in qualifying Sunday.

Those seeking to race their way into the Daytona 500 are Reed Sorenson, Corey LaJoie, DJ Kennington and Timmy Hill.

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Where Are They Now? 1970 Daytona 500 winner Pete Hamilton

pete_hamilton_with_his_petty_enterprises_1970_plymouth_superbird
Photo courtesy Daytona International Speedway
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It’s been 47 years but Pete Hamilton vividly remembers February 22, 1970 – the greatest day of his racing career – as if it was yesterday.

“To tell you the truth, I don’t know if I necessarily expected anything grand to happen that day,” Hamilton told NASCAR Talk.

Having signed just weeks earlier to run an abbreviated 16-race schedule for Petty Enterprises, the Massachusetts native found himself in the 12th edition of the Daytona 500, driving the No. 40 Plymouth Superbird with its renowned high rear spoiler.

While the pressure of driving for team owners Lee and Richard Petty and in the “Great American Race” may have made other drivers nervous, such was not the case for Hamilton.

pete-hamilton-daytona-beach-journal
Photo courtesy Daytona Beach Morning Journal

In just the second Daytona 500 of his career (he finished 44th the year before), Hamilton was cool, calm and collected.

And it was those same attributes that led Hamilton to win NASCAR’s biggest race, beating the best of the best, including Petty, A.J. Foyt, Buddy Baker, Bobby Allison and David Pearson.

When Richard Petty’s engine expired just seven laps into the 500, Hamilton became the standard bearer for Petty Enterprises and he did not disappoint.

Having qualified ninth, Hamilton ran a patient and methodical race, slowly working his way up through the field. He led two times for four laps along the way until he got into a late-race battle with future NASCAR Hall of Famer David Pearson.

Pearson had dominated the race, leading 82 laps across five different points, including laps 176-191. But Pearson and his Holman-Moody Ford could not hold off Hamilton, who led the final nine laps en route to victory lane.

“We had ran fast, and I think we ran a little faster than Richard, but I knew that I had a lot to learn,” Hamilton told NASCAR Talk.

“By about three-quarters of the race, we were in third place, and then I passed Bobby Allison and got behind David Pearson and was able to pass him and take the lead. That was pretty damn thrilling for this Yankee boy.

“The last 20 laps or so, David and I fought our hearts out, slipping and sliding. We didn’t beat on each other, but we came damn close, and I was fortunate enough to get the best of that deal.”

The 27-year-old Hamilton, with a winning speed of 149.601 mph, beat Pearson by three car lengths, the only two drivers to finish on the lead lap. It was the fourth time Petty Enterprises had won the “Great American Race” in its 12-year history at that point (it would eventually win the 500 nine times, including seven by Richard Petty).

Remember, this was 1970, so there was no radio communication between teams and drivers. Even though he was the first to take the checkered flag, Hamilton wasn’t completely sure he had won.

So he did something unique in Daytona 500 annals:

“When I took the checkered flag, I made a decision at that point that I wasn’t going to let off. I was going to drive an extra lap just to make damned sure that I was the one in front,” Hamilton said with a laugh.

“That lap after the end of the race, I still was running wide open all the way around. Finally, when I got into turns 3 and 4, I began to slow down. It was a pretty thrilling thing.

“When I got into victory circle I remember I couldn’t stop smiling. Maurice Petty was my crew chief. We had a big old hug and a big old happy time, along with all the guys that had worked on the car.”

The 1970 season would go on to be the best of Hamilton’s NASCAR Grand National career. He also won both races at Talladega that season, and won the 1971 Daytona 500 qualifying race.

All told, Hamilton made 64 Grand National starts, won four races, and earned 26 top-five and 33 top-10 finishes plus three poles.

He retired as a driver after the 1973 season and began building race car chassis. He also built a seven-building warehouse and office complex in suburban Atlanta that he still owns today.

Former champion Darrell Waltrip (seen talking on tv screen) addresses a gathering of Daytona 500 winners in 2005 including Pete Hamilton (left) and Bobby Allison. (Photo by Getty Images).

Now 74, Hamilton is retired and splits his time between Georgia and New England. While he hasn’t attended a NASCAR race since the 50th Daytona 500 in 2008, he said “I’m still an avid NASCAR fan. I watch the majority of the races on TV.”

Then he added with a laugh, “My wife tells me I watch the start of the race, sleep through the middle and then wake up for the end. I don’t know how the hell I wake up for the end, but I manage to see the end of most of the races. She winds up watching most of the race instead of my sorry ass.”

Hamilton will be watching the 59th Daytona 500 this Sunday, but don’t be surprised if his mind goes back 47 years at some point during the day.

“I have a very vivid memory of racing that day with guys like Buddy Baker, Charlie Glotzbach, Bobby and Donnie Allison, and David Pearson,” he said. “It makes you feel real good and proud of what we accomplished together.

“It wasn’t a ‘me’ thing, it was a ‘we’ thing. It took everybody that was on the car to make the thing really go. I was just the driver, the pilot.”

Let us know who you would like to hear about from the past and email Jerry Bonkowski at jerry.bonkowski@Nbcuni.com with your suggestion.

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Fans welcome Dale Earnhardt Jr. back to Daytona with open arms and high spirits

DAYTONA BEACH, FL - FEBRUARY 19:  Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the #88 Nationwide Chevrolet, stands on the grid during qualifying for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series 59th Annual DAYTONA 500 at Daytona International Speedway on February 19, 2017 in Daytona Beach, Florida.  (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)
Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – With due respect to Chase Elliott for winning the Daytona 500 pole position, he wasn’t the main attraction for the few dozen fans gathered in victory lane after qualifying.

“Let’s go Junior! Whoo!”

“Go Dale!”

“Junebug!”

Finally a voice cut through the din with authority.

“Welcome back!”

Earnhardt, standing beside Elliott while posing for photos between their Chevrolets, lifted his Mountain Dew in tribute as the throngs heartily cheered.

“I had a real good time in the (TV) booth and just to be able to be at the track and be a part of it one way or another,” said Earnhardt, who helped call The Clash race on FS1 (Alex Bowman finished third in his No. 88 Chevrolet) before qualifying second Sunday in his official return to NASCAR. “It feels great. The fans have been super supportive throughout the whole process. I know there are a lot of folks happy to see us all back at the track. The team’s really geared up.

“It’s good to come out of here with a good result today, and we’ll try to build on that. It doesn’t guarantee anything going forward, but it certainly shows we’ve got speed in a straight line.”

After missing the second half of the 2016 season while recovering from a concussion, Earnhardt will return to racing Thursday night in the second Duel qualifying race at Daytona International Speedway.

Though he’s been in the car since Saturday, the 14-time most popular driver had made only single-car runs to prepare for qualifying.

Earnhardt admitted he is “antsy to get in the draft and get in some pack racing” when cars return to the track Thursday with a practice at noon.

“I don’t know how much (drafting) we’ll get to do on Thursday aside from before the qualifying race,” he said. “But certainly I’m going to get in that qualifying race and mix it up with them guys. Hopefully we’ll have a good run.

“It’s a great little race car. Our backup car is great, too. You’ve got to kind of think about that backup car these days because there’s the potential to get your car tore up before you ever get it to the 500. We’ve got two great race cars and feel good about our opportunity come Sunday.

“We just hope we can get some time to work on our car in the draft and understand where the balance is (and) just whether we got the car handling where we want it.”

After winning the Daytona 500 in 2004 and 2014, Earnhardt is anxious to punctuate his return with another victory. He admitted to being so competitive about his comeback that he was a tad disappointed to be knocked off the pole by his Hendrick Motorsports teammate.

“Yeah, that’s the funny thing about racing is you realize being out of the car how much you might have took it for granted and then you just want to get back in,” he said. “And then when you get back in, you just want to win. Then when you get real close, you’re disappointed. But in the grand scheme of things, this is awesome.

“To be back in the car and be running well and have such a good day and to see (Elliott) do so well … it means a lot.”

Long: Even in celebration, a hint of concern hangs over Hendrick Motorsports

DAYTONA BEACH, FL - FEBRUARY 19:  Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe's Chevrolet, is involved in an on-track incident during the weather delayed Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Advance Auto Parts Clash at Daytona International Speedway on February 19, 2017 in Daytona Beach, Florida.  (Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)
Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — On a day when Hendrick Motorsports swept the Daytona 500 front row, the main topic was not how fast its cars were, but if they could make it 500 miles without suddenly darting out of control.

Last year, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Chase Elliott spun by themselves off Turn 4 in the Daytona 500, and Earnhardt did the same thing at Talladega a few months later.

Sunday, seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson’s blue-and-white Chevrolet snapped loose and turned its nose into the side of Kurt Busch’s car 17 laps into the Clash.

“It’s something I’m very concerned about and to see it again today adds to that anxiety a little bit,’’ Earnhardt said during the FS1 broadcast of the Clash.

Johnson was perplexed. He called his Turn 4 incident “bizarre,” saying his car was fine elsewhere on the track.

Crew chief Chad Knaus, though, sought to quell any fears by downplaying Johnson’s incident.

“I feel it’s something that we can combat fairly easily,’’ Knaus told NBC Sports. “I’m not too concerned at all.

“I wouldn’t say it’s anything with Hendrick specifically.’’

Although Knaus is known as one of the mentally strongest people in the garage, his Jedi mind tricks couldn’t calm some of his teammates.

Earnhardt later said that his team was looking over notes from previous years to explain the spate of spins. Pole-winning crew chief Alan Gustafson admits he’s concerned after Elliott had spun in last year’s race.

What is unnerving for some at Hendrick Motorsports is that even with three days of practice before the Daytona 500, they won’t see enough cars on track to reliably ensure the car’s balance is correct.

With the qualifying races in cooler conditions at night, it doesn’t provide as good a gauge, especially with warm temperatures and a slick track forecasted for the Daytona 500.

The best time to prepare for those conditions is to practice during the day, but Earnhardt and Gustafson admit that won’t be helpful because many teams limit how much they run to avoid getting collected in a wreck and having to go to a backup car. Packs will be small.

“If you don’t have 20 cars (practicing together), you’re probably not going to get a great read on what your car is going to do,’’ Gustafson said. “You need to have 20 cars for more than five, six, seven laps at a time.’’

That’s critical because tires are starting to play a more important role. The track’s surface is wearing and that makes handling more important.

Without those large packs in practice, teams will have to rely on simulation and other engineering tools.

Even with those resources, Turn 4 has become the Bermuda Triangle for Hendrick Motorsports, a team which has one victory in the last eight restrictor-plate races.

“That exit of Turn 4 is tough,’’ Elliott told NBC Sports. “It’s definitely easy to get in a bad way and get bound up or get in a bad aero situation up off 4, and the balance is starting to become a factor here again, which is good news I think for the folks who sit up in those bleachers and the people who watch on TV.’’

Johnson and Knaus both speculated that track position played a role in the No. 48 car’s wayward actions. Johnson fell back in the pack before losing control of his car.

“I have to assume it’s relative to the height of the rear spoiler,’’ Johnson said. “When there’s less air and the air is so turbulent back there, the spoiler is so small it’s really easy to get the pressure off it and then the back just rotates around.’’

So what will have to be done?

“We can adjust rear shocks, rear ride height and try to get more pitch in the car in a sense to keep the spoiler up in the air longer,’’ he said.

If it was that easy, there wouldn’t be the concern for some at Hendrick Motorsports even as Elliott celebrated his second consecutive Daytona 500 pole and Earnhardt relished his return by starting next to his teammate.

Of course, those cars had run alone on the track Sunday. It’s when they’re around other cars that raises questions.

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