02/28/2002 1:00AM

Car talk, from Elvis to Winston Cup

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Auto racing has had an on-and-off history in Las Vegas.

The highlights include Elvis Presley's grand prix victory in the 1964 movie "Viva Las Vegas" (he also won the girl, Ann-Margret) and Hunter S. Thompson's book "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," which chronicled the 1971 Mint 400, billed as America's biggest off-road race. Caesars Palace also hosted some Formula 1 races.

For years, when you asked people what the biggest sporting events were in Las Vegas, the answer was boxing matches.

The Las Vegas Motor Speedway, the site of this Sunday's UAW DaimlerChrysler 400 Winston Cup race, opened in 1995 and changed all that. Major title fights can sell about 15,000 to 20,000 tickets, but a NASCAR race at the speedway can attract 135,000.

And race day isn't the only thing that makes the event huge. While there might be a press conference and weigh-in open to the public in the week leading up to a boxing match, NASCAR drivers have been all over the valley this week promoting the sport and their sponsors. At last count, I found 40 different drivers making appearances at casinos, car dealerships, restaurants, and shopping malls. NASCAR is very fan-friendly and its following has exploded in recent years.

Sunday's Winston Cup race, which used to be known as the Las Vegas 400, is the fifth held here. Mark Martin won the inaugural running in 1998 and his Roush Racing teammate, Jeff Burton, the brother of Daytona 500 winner Ward Burton, won back-to-back runnings in 1999 and 2000. Jeff Gordon broke the Roush streak last year.

Gordon was the consensus favorite around town as of noon Thursday. Las Vegas Sports Consultants pegged him at 4-1 for its clients. The Palms opened Gordon at 5-1 and he was bet down to 9-2. Station Casinos has the defending champ at 7-2.

Juicy odds on most drivers can be found by shopping around town (Matt Kenseth was 30-1 at Stations but only 22-1 at the Palms, while the Palms had Dale Earnhardt Jr. at 15-1 as opposed to only 7-1 at Stations), though most odds will change by the time you read this.

More and more sports books are also offering proposition wagers and head-to-head matchups. Stations has the most head-to-head matchups (a dozen) while the Palms has the most props (eight), including the number of caution flags (over/under 4 1/2), the number of drivers on the lead lap at the end of the race (over/under 13 1/2) and the number of different drivers to lead a lap vs. the number of rebounds on March 3 by Drew Gooden of Kansas (lap leaders is a -160 favorite). The Palms also has multi-bet props such as Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s finish position, manufacturer exactas and best finish among "No Bull 5" drivers. Burton is the even-money favorite against Tony Stewart (2-1), Kenseth (3-1), Earnhardt (5-1), and Bobby Hamilton (12-1).

But while Vegas oddsmakers may differ on the odds they post, both Marcus Hurd of the Palms and Micah Roberts of Station Casinos agree that Roush Racing will be a force to reckon with. Roush Racing's team includes Martin, Burton, local Kurt Busch, and Kenseth, who won last week's Subway 400 at Rockingham.

"The track here is different than at the superspeedways," Hurd said. "It's kind of like the difference between racing on turf or dirt in horse racing. Some racers seem to excel on one over the other and the. Two or three weeks ago, the Roush team was testing here and I expect them to do well."

"Roush Racing has figured out the formula to win in Las Vegas," Roberts said. "The Roush team won three straight from 1998 to 2000 and has won eight races here overall, including the Craftsman Truck Series and the Busch Series."

The Sam's Town 300, sponsored by the locals casino of the same name, is the Busch Series race that will be run at 1 p.m. Saturday (televised on cable by FX). Sam's Town, along with the Stardust and the other Boyd Gaming properties, opened Jason Keller as the 7-2 favorite, while the Palms tabbed Greg Biffle as the 3-1 choice. Roberts was waiting to post odds to see which Winston Cup drivers would enter the race.

The Palms has a prop that asks which race will have more caution flags. The Busch Race is a -120 favorite over the Winston Cup race at even-money.

People who caution that auto racing in the desert will once again become a passing fad should take note: It's more likely to get bigger before it gets smaller.

The Las Vegas Motor Speedway is hoping to land a second Winston Cup event in the near future, and the thought is that Las Vegas could replace Atlanta as the final tour stop of the year. Las Vegas Motor Speedway GM Chris Powell has even suggested that the season-end awards could be handed out at a Strip hotel the day after the race.