03/04/2004 12:00AM

City cranks up for big NASCAR weekend

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The Daytona 500 has long been called the Super Bowl of NASCAR, but Sunday's UAW-DaimlerChrysler 400 - aka the Las Vegas 400 - is the Super Bowl of NASCAR betting.

This year, our local race has a Super Bowl-like two-week gap to help build the hype. With no Nextel Cup race last week after the Subway 400 in Rockingham, N.C., the good ole boys have had extra time to make the cross-country trip, and oddsmakers have had extra time to put up their Super Bowl-like menu of proposition wagers.

And just like in the Super Bowl, advance wagering has been steady, with things expected to build throughout the weekend.

"It really started picking up today [Wednesday] with the start of the 140,000 estimated visitors starting to arrive," said Micah Roberts, who sets the auto-racing odds for Palace Station. Those odds are also widely distributed to NASCAR's beat writers.

"We'll get more and more each day," Roberts said, "and then we'll see most of our action on Saturday after the Busch race [the Sam's Town 300] and on Sunday morning. By the time the race goes off, we'll have an increase of 25 to 30 percent over our handle on the Daytona 500, which is up on the betting boards for two months."

To meet the demand, many Vegas sports books, including the Stations, are opening at 6 a.m. Sunday so customers can place their wagers before heading out to the Las Vegas Motor Speedway for the race.

The Stardust on the Strip is also opening at 6 a.m. Sunday, said sports book supervisor Chris Chavez.

"When I first came to town in 1988 at the Circus Circus, [sports book director] Don Lanners was one of the first to put up odds on stock-car racing," Chavez said. "We've seen nothing but growth since then, especially in recent years with the exposure on TV. People gravitate to it when it's on TV all the time, and the sport has never been bigger."

While Palms race and sports book director Fred Crespi agrees that the national popularity of NASCAR has gone through the roof, he says interest from regular sports bettors in Las Vegas has really fueled the upward trend in betting handle.

"When the race started here, that really got a lot more local bettors interested in NASCAR," Crespi said. "We also now have a lot of the teams come and test here, and that gets a lot of attention from the local media. Plus, with Las Vegas natives Kurt Busch and Brendan Gaughan now driving on the Nextel Cup circuit, that creates more excitement. Every week, more people are asking when we're going to put up our odds, and locals are playing it a lot more."

As for this Sunday's race, Ryan Newman is the consensus favorite around town. Stations had him as co-favorite at 8-1 along with Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson, and Busch. The Stardust opened Newman at 5-1, and the Palms made him 7-1. (These odds were compiled Wednesday, so they are subject to change by the weekend as more money comes in.)

"His track record on mile-and-a-half or bigger tracks is overwhelming to me," Crespi said of Newman. "Plus, his team is great at qualifying. He's usually in the top five if not on the pole, so I just felt I had to make him a little lower."

Crespi and Roberts are friends from the days when they worked as sports book managers for Stations. They take an annual trip to the Daytona 500, and this year also went to Rockingham. But the odds they post aren't as similar as one might think, and there are plenty of opportunities to shop around at their shops and elsewhere.

About the only props that are the same at the Stations and Palms are the over/under on cautions (5 1/2), over/under on lap leaders (12 1/2), and whether the winner will be numbers 0-23 or 24-99. Other props vary quite a bit. At Stations, Chevy is a 6-5 underdog (or +120 if listed as a money line) vs. the coupling of Ford and Dodge at -150. At the Palms, Chevy is also 6-5, but you can take either Ford at 7-5 or Dodge at 8-5.

"I like to offer the plus-money if someone really wants one or the other, instead of making them lay a price to get the one they don't want," Crespi said.

Another way they differ is that while both have head-to-head matchups, Stations has four-way props in which you try to pick the highest finisher among a quartet of drivers, whereas the Palms has three-way matchups.

The matchups within the props are mostly different, so you can shop around to find your favorite driver against a group that you think he'll beat more easily. That also holds true with the head-to-head matchups. For instance, Newman is -125 vs. Busch at Stations, -125 vs. Stewart at the Stardust, and -125 vs. Johnson at the Palms.

Gaughan can be had at -125 vs. fellow rookie Brian Vickers at Stations, -130 vs. Johnny Sauter at the Palms, or as a +105 underdog vs. Elliott Sadler at the Stardust.

Both of those examples are against different drivers, but you can also shop around for the best price on the exact same matchups. As of Wednesday, Matt Kenseth was -120 over Jeff Gordon (at -110) at the Palms, whereas the Stardust had Gordon as the -115 favorite and Kenseth at -105. As money comes in over the weekend, there are sure to be fluctuations in all the lines, and the people who shop around will get the best prices. (Hint: If you're in a casino where a driver made a public appearance, you're likely to see that he has been overbet there.)

As for Saturday's Busch race, Roberts estimates that Stations will handle about one-third of what it books on the Nextel Cup race. Sam's Town, the locals casino on Boulder Highway, is the sponsor of the race and a sister property of the Stardust in the Boyd Gaming chain. Chavez said he'll be seeing a lot of the handle on that race coming from Sam's Town, which is hosting pre- and postrace parties as part of the weekend's festivities. Crespi said he's encouraged by the handle on the Busch race and attributes it to the number of Nextel Cup drivers who will also be racing Saturday.

Stations has Nextel Cup regulars Kenseth (3-1), Kevin Harvick (3-1), last year's winner Joe Nemechek (5-1), and Michael Waltrip (6-1) as the top four choices. Jamie McMurray is the lowest regular Busch driver, at 8-1, along with another Vegas local, Kyle Busch.

Whether or not any of the local drivers reach the winner's circle, it's going to be a super weekend of racing.