02/27/2003 12:00AM

Big betting on NASCAR race

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Most of Las Vegas's major sporting events are lived vicariously via the magic of television.

The Super Bowl, March Madness, and the Kentucky Derby all draw huge crowds and a lot of wagers, but the actual action takes place hundreds or even thousands of miles away.

But this weekend is different. Several sporting events are coming to Las Vegas, and all of the people betting big money can actually go to the live events and cheer (or boo) in person.

First and foremost, it's NASCAR Week, and the gearheads have taken over the town. All 140,000 reserved seats have been sold out for Sunday's Winston Cup race, the UAW DaimlerChrysler 400 (or the Las Vegas 400 as locals prefer to call it), since before the Daytona 500 two weeks ago. That's the earliest sell-out in the six years of the race, and the valley's 127,000 hotel rooms were close to putting up the "no vacancy" sign as the weekend approached.

Also adding to room demand is Saturday night's Roy Jones Jr.-John Ruiz heavyweight title fight at the Thomas and Mack Center. Jones, who has long been regarded as the best pound-for-pound boxer in the world, is the light heavyweight champion and is trying to make history by taking Ruiz's WBA belt (the one that Lennox Lewis tossed aside). Even though Jones is giving away upwards of 30 pounds, he is as high as a -210 favorite (bet $2.10 to win $1) with Ruiz at +175 (bet $1 to win $1.75) at local sports books.

Ticket sales and pay-per-view buys have reportedly been slow for this fight. Jones has been criticized by none other than Ruiz for his lack of cooperation in promoting the bout, though one has to believe the Thomas and Mack will fill up Saturday night as hotels give VIP's tickets, and promoter Don King "papers the house."

But that's not a concern for NASCAR, which always packs 'em in.

Keeping up with their fan-friendly reputation, no fewer than 30 NASCAR drivers were scheduled to make public appearances this week all over town. Hotels also geared up for race fans with special promotions and menu items for the good ole boys.

Busch bet down to 5-1 favortism

Well-known drivers such as Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon are among the top contenders for Sunday's race at 8-1, though the actual favorite is local boy Kurt Busch at 5-1 (bet down from 7-1). This doesn't have as much to do with provincialism as the fact he is the most consistent driver on the circuit. Busch won three of the last five races to end last season, and has finished second in both races so far this year.

"He is the new hotshot of NASCAR," said Micah Roberts, the auto racing oddsmaker for Station Casinos. "Everything points to him. He has so much momentum. He was second in the last two races - at the superspeedway in Daytona and at Rockingham - and now he's coming to a track that's ideally suited for his driving skills. Las Vegas is a flat track, and he's done well on similar courses. And the Rousch [Racing Team] setup has been unbelievable here."

Roush drivers won the first three Las Vegas 400's with Jeff Burton and Mark Martin, and also won the first two races at the Texas Speedway, another flat track.

Defending Winston Cup points champ Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman are other top contenders at 7-1. Last year's winner, Sterling Marlin, is at 10-1 along with Dale Jarrett, the Winston Cup winner last week at Rockingham, and Jimmie Johnson.

As the popularity of NASCAR has exploded, drivers up and down the betting sheets get their share of support. For that reason, Roberts said he expects this year's race to set another record for handle.

"Every year it gets bigger and bigger, and there's no reason to think that will change," Roberts said. "We have a big core of local players now who bet NASCAR every week, and you really see the increase in the number of visitors who are getting more familiar with betting the race. It's unlike any other stop on the Winston Cup circuit. People can bet their favorite drivers or a bunch of props and go out to the race.

"The whole Vegas atmosphere is what separates it from other tracks, and the track loves the odds aspect of it. They even send out press releases mentioning the odds, unlike other major sports."

All kinds of NASCAR prop bets

Proposition wagering has gotten much bigger. At the Station Casinos, there are 11 head-to-head driver matchups, over/under the number of cautions (4 1/2), over/under the number of lap leaders (12 1/2), the winning manufacturer (Ford/Dodge is -140 while General Motors is +110), the winning car number (0-23 is even money while 24-99 is at -130), as well as multi-driver props in which you try to pick the winner out of four listed drivers.

Roberts said the props and matchups and odds to win the Winston Cup race had been coming in strong, and that he really expected things to increase by Friday and into the weekend.

Not to be overlooked is Saturday's running of the NASCAR Busch Series race, the Sam's Town 300, sponsored by the local casino on Boulder Highway. Many of the Winston Cup drivers will be participating. In fact, Burton is the 5-2 favorite. Roberts has Steve Park as the 7-2 second choice, but you might be able to find him higher at other sports books or as part of the "field" at a decent price. Park is driving Junior's car that he won with at Daytona.

Capping off the sports-filled weekend is the Arena Football League between the Las Vegas Gladiators and the San Jose SaberCats. The Gladiators, who started the season 0-2 but have won two straight to get back to the .500 mark, are 7-point underdogs to the defending league champions.

From cars running circles around each other to Ruiz chasing Jones around the boxing ring to the oval of indoor football, hearts should be racing all weekend.