03/09/2006 1:00AM

Big motor-sports weekend ahead of March Madness


After the Super Bowl, the sporting events of the next two weekends have the biggest impact of the year on Las Vegas.

This Sunday, the UAW DaimlerChrysler 400 will be run in front of an expected 150,000 fans at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, and then next Thursday through Sunday will be wall-to-wall basketball as the NCAA tournament tips off with standing-room-only crowds in the city's sports books.

The opening weekend doesn't quite match the Super Bowl in betting handle (a record $94.5 million was wagered on the Steelers-Seahawks matchup), but by the end of the month, it will likely surpass the big game.

From a betting perspective, the Nextel Cup race, also known by its former and less corporate name, the Las Vegas 400, can't compare to the Super Bowl or March Madness, but it continues to grow, according to Micah Roberts, the director of satellite properties for Station Casinos and the top auto racing oddsmaker in town.

"This is the ninth time the Nascar race has been run here, and betting handle used to double every year," Roberts said from his office at Sunset Station, without divulging exact dollar amounts. "The volume has grown so much now that it can't really double. Last year we saw a 30 percent increase over the year before, and I expect around a 25 percent increase again this year.

"The good ol' boys love coming here and being able to bet on their favorite drivers," he said. "It adds another exciting element to the weekend."

When Roberts first posted odds on this Sunday's field, he had no one at single-digit odds and 10 drivers listed between 10-1 and 14-1.

"This is the most wide open this race has been in years," he said. "There are 14 drivers with a legitimate shot at winning."

After early betting and as of Thursday morning, defending series champ Tony Stewart has emerged as the 7-1 favorite, with Jimmie Johnson, Greg Biffle, and Matt Kenseth being bet down to 8-1.

The other top contenders have stayed at their opening odds: Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards, and Jamie McMurray at 11-1; Mark Martin at 12-1; and Las Vegas native sons and brothers Kurt and Kyle Busch both at 14-1.

While every book in town will have the odds to win the race, Stations stands out with its menu of head-to-head matchups (10 at this writing, plus seven four-way group props in which bettors try to pick the highest finisher among four evenly matched drivers) and proposition wagers. Among them are the number of caution flags (over/under 7), number of lap leaders (over/under 11 1/2), winning margin (over/under 1.522 seconds), whether the winning car number will be even (-200) or odd (+170), whether the winning driver's last name will begin with A through J (-200) or K through Z (+170), and whether the winning manufacturer will be Ford or Dodge (-130) or Chevrolet (even).

The Busch Series race, called the Sam's Town 300, will be held Saturday. Biffle is listed as the 4-1 favorite, followed by Edwards at 5-1, Kenseth and Kevin Harvick at 6-1, and Stewart and Kyle Busch at 7-1. Roberts also had six Busch matchups as of Thursday.

Betting cars across the board?

The folks at the Leroy's chain of sports books have borrowed from the horse racing side to give their customers a different way to bet auto racing. In addition to win wagering, you can also bet to place and show at Leroy's outlets, which are located in several smaller casinos that aren't big enough to run their own sports books or have decided to have Leroy's run that end of the business.

Some of the more popular or easily accessible Leroy's counters can be found at the Riviera, Sahara, Tropicana, Hooters, and the Speedway Casino on I-15 on the way to the racetrack.

"We started this with the Daytona 500 last month with an eye toward the race here," said Leroy's odds manager Bob Smith. "We wanted to try it for about five weeks and see how it went, and so far it's been very popular."

Leroy's has Stewart at 8-1 to win the race, 3-1 to place, and 8-5 to show. The odds are not parimutuel, so once you bet it, you lock in your price. Leroy's can adjust their odds if they're getting one-sided action.

"The customers, especially maybe those that don't follow auto racing that much, might think a driver will be up there but not sure if they'll win, so they have the option to play either place or show," Smith said. "During the first two races, we've had more money on the show than the place."

Judging by the number of people wearing Dale Earnhardt Jr. merchandise already heading into town, Leroy's should see significant action on Junior. His odds opened at 18-1 to win, 7-1 to place, and 7-2 to show.

Leroy's March Madness contest

After Sunday afternoon's race, sports books in town will shift gears and really focus on the NCAA men's basketball tournament as the 65-team field will be announced during the running of the DaimlerChrysler 400.

And Leroy's, after doing something different with auto racing, has also stepped up with the March Mayhem College Hoops Challenge against-the-spread contest this year - or, actually, three different contests.

Contestants have to sign up for a free Leroy's Sports Club account to get their player number and then pay a $5 fee per entry. The first contest will be on Thursday's 16 games, with contestants ranking their selections from 1 through 16, with 16 being their strongest play and 1 being the weakest. The entrants with the most "confidence points" will split the $2,500 prize.

The same format will be used in a separate contest for Friday's 16 games, and in another contest for a $5,000 prize on the following week's Thursday and Friday games.

Cards with the contest lines will be available on Monday afternoon each week at all Leroy's outlets, with all lines including a half-point to avoid pushes.