02/25/2010 12:00AM

For 145,000, auto racing's where it's at


LAS VEGAS - We're in the midst of a three-month run that brings a spike to the local economy every year.

It starts with New Year's Eve, continues with the Super Bowl, then Chinese New Year, and concludes with March Madness. The events bring more than a quarter-million visitors to Las Vegas each of those weekends.

But if you're looking for the biggest event at one location, it's being held at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway this Sunday. That's when the Shelby American 400 Sprint Cup race will be held in front of about 145,000 fans. That was the attendance last year, according to Jeff Motley, the speedway's vice president of public relations, and he estimates the same this year.

Including qualifying days and the Sam's Town 300 Nationwide Series race Saturday - which features Danica Patrick taking on the boys - overall attendance will be similar to last year's 315,000, Motley said. Obviously, many will attend every day, but it's still a more concentrated crowd than those at other events, which spread people all over the valley.

I annually check in with Micah Roberts to get his view of the big weekend. One of the most respected auto racing oddsmakers in town, he has had stints at the Wild Wild West, the Santa Fe Station, Palace Station, and Sunset Station. He's no longer working for the casinos and instead writes about the race and sports book scene for GamingToday and vegasinsider.com.

"For years, Daytona and Las Vegas are the two biggest-bet races, and Daytona has the advantage because it's a bigger tradition and the race is up longer over the winter, while Vegas is just on the boards for a week," Roberts said. "The teams and fans love to come here because of the betting options, which have grown over the years."

Roberts is too modest to point out that he was a big part of the growth, with the full menu of props he would put up at Station Casinos - everything from the manufacturer of the winning car, to an over/under on the winning car's number, to the number of caution flags, and the number of leaders.

The Las Vegas Hilton has Jimmie Johnson as the 9-2 favorite, which isn't surprising since he won this race from 2005 to 2007 and has won a record four straight season-long titles. Johnson is also coming off a win in last Sunday's Auto Club 500 in Fontana, Calif.

"It's surprising to see him that good this early," Roberts said. "Usually, he starts off slow, but his team has it dialed in. That's scary for everyone else."

Johnson is followed on the tote board by Mark Martin (7-1), defending champ and Vegas native Kurt Busch (8-1), Jeff Gordon (10-1), and Denny Hamlin and Tony Stewart (both at 12-1).

Roberts said he expects drivers who fared well last week will be contenders again this week. In addition to Martin, he cited the Childress team of Jeff Burton, Kevin Harvick, and Clint Bowyer, all of whom are 15-1 at the Hilton.

"The Childress team got something clicking last week," he said. "After Daytona's restrictor-plate racing to slow down the cars on the superspeedway, Las Vegas, Charlotte, Atlanta, and Texas are all similar down-force tracks. Las Vegas is also similar to Fontana, except the banking is steeper, so teams will come with the same cars and the same setup with some tweaking."

Saturday's Nationwide race, the Sam's Town 300, is getting more attention because of Patrick. Jimmy Vaccaro, the legendary bookmaker who is with Lucky's race and sports books, said he told his staff that anything with Danica will draw betting action.

"I agree with that," Roberts said. "I think she's great for Nascar. She's basically a pop-culture figure. She looks great in a bikini, and she drives faster than most guys dream of."

The Hilton opened Patrick at 300-1. Busch is the solid favorite at 9-4 in that race, followed by Hamlin (7-2), and Harvick and Carl Edwards (both 5-1).

Horse racing contest notes

Speaking of invaders from our neighboring state, Mark Heder of Laguna Hills, Calif., took home $269,500 last weekend after topping a field of 599 that either qualified throughout last year or paid the $1,000 entry fee into the Horseplayer World Series at the Orleans.

* The Coast Casinos also announced its schedule of tournaments for the coming year: Championship at the Orleans, April 8-10; Summer Classic at the Gold Coast, July 29-31; Fall Classic at the Orleans, Oct. 7-9; and next year's Horseplayer World Series, Feb. 17-19, 2011. Top finishers in this year's Coast tourneys earn spots in the world series.

* In weekly contest news, the Hilton is resuming its SuperBook Saturdays contest this weekend. There is a $30 entry fee with a limit of three per person. Each entry makes six mythical $100 win-and-place wagers from the tracks designated by tournament director Chris Graham. Graham said he expects to use Aqueduct, Gulfstream, Santa Anita, and possibly Hawthorne, especially if another track cancels. The Hilton also seeds the pot with $500. The contest is expected to run at least through the end of May and perhaps taking a short break until the start of Saratoga and Del Mar. Graham said there won't be tournaments held on March 20 (the opening weekend of March Madness) or on May 1 (Kentucky Derby Day).