02/13/2003 12:00AM

Daytona 500 attracts big action

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Micah Roberts, the race and sports book manager at Palace Station, is considered by many to be the top auto racing oddsmaker in Las Vegas.

He puts up odds on just about every motorsport event for wagering at the Station Casinos family of properties, he writes a weekly column for a Vegas-based gaming newspaper, and is the most sought-after oddsmaker when auto racing beat writers or radio talk shows across the country are looking for odds.

So, it's not surprising that even when Roberts is on vacation he is also doing his best to keep up with the Joneses . . . and the Gordons, Earnhardts, Pettys, and Andrettis.

Leading up to Sunday's Daytona 500 - the "Great American Race" - Roberts is spending Speed Week at the Daytona International Speedway, taking in some practice sessions, hobnobbing with the pit crews, and watching the races.

"I'm on vacation, but this is what I love," Roberts said. "I want to be around the excitement of the Daytona 500, to hear the roar of the engines and the excitement of the crowds. It's a great scene."

Just like a rail bird that feels he has an edge by being in person at the racetrack, Roberts says he can learn a lot more about the drivers and teams than he can from just sitting in his office back in Las Vegas - and it helps him formulate his odds throughout the year.

"There's so much you can learn from seeing it live," he said. "You can really see which pit crews work well together, see who has their cars running the best now, and see what teams are on the improve."

Roberts has been keeping in touch with the office during his vacation and adjusting odds based on what he is seeing and learning.

Auto racing wagering has exploded in recent years, especially on the NASCAR Winston Cup circuit. Last Saturday, Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the Budweiser Shootout, a non-points race that is part of the three-week-long festival that leads up to the Daytona 500. Even though bookmakers paid out on a lot of tickets on Earnhardt (he opened as the 7-2 favorite and was bet down to 5-2), it was still a good result for the house, Roberts said, because there was enough betting on the rest of the star-studded field to more than make up for any exposure on the favorite.

Roberts said he is expecting another record handle when this Sunday's Daytona 500 is said and done. And because there is such balanced action up and down the odds sheets, Roberts even raised Earnhardt Jr. from 4-1 to 5-1 earlier this week to attract some more money on him (good luck finding him over 4-1 at any sports book by the time the weekend rolls around).

Other favorites in the Daytona 500 are Jeff Gordon at 6-1, and defending Winston Cup champ Tony Stewart and 2001 Daytona winner Michael Waltrip, both at 7-1.

Earnhardt and Waltrip are part of the Dale Earnhardt Inc. team that has dominated the restrictor-plate races at the superspeedways in recent years. Roberts calls them "untouchable if they're on their game."

On Wednesday morning, Earnhardt and Waltrip were again tearing up the track in practice runs.

Veteran Rusty Wallace, at 14-1, is also given a decent chance by Roberts. However, the most likely winners (at the lower odds) aren't the ones that Roberts is most concerned about.

"If a driver wins at low odds, he's not going to hurt us too much," Roberts said. "It's the longshots that can really eat into the bottom line. I've had to lower the odds on a number of drivers that have looked really good.

"Joe Nemechek and Ricky Rudd were as high as 40-1, but I lowered them to 25-1. Terry Labonte was at 200-1 but we lowered him to 125-1 and then to 70-1, the same thing with Mike Wallace, who is now at 40-1."

Station Casinos doesn't only have odds on who will win the race. The Daytona 500 is considered the Super Bowl of NASCAR, and it is treated as such. There are 13 head-to-head driver matchups, plus proposition wagering such as which car manufacturer will be the winner: Chevy (-220), Ford (+160), Dodge (+200), or Pontiac (+5000).

The Winston Cup season is unusual in that its most prestigious race is held at the start of the year, but odds also are available on who wins the overall season-long points race.

Stewart is the 3-1 favorite to repeat as the Winston Cup champ, with Gordon at 7-2, Las Vegas product Kurt Busch at 5-1, Jimmie Johnson at 8-1, and Dale Jarrett and Ryan Newman at 10-1.

Over/under season win totals also are available on 14 drivers, ranging from Gordon, Stewart, and Busch at over/under 4 1/2 wins to Mark Martin at over/under a measly half a win.

Roberts said bettors have been pounding the under on Gordon and Busch, while taking the over on Martin, figuring he can get up for at least one victory.

If you don't want to tie up your money until November, there's a shorter prop on which driver will have the most Winston Cup points through the first three races of the season: Daytona, Rockingham on Feb. 23, and the Las Vegas race on March 2. Stewart, Gordon and Earnhardt Jr. are tri-favorites at 7-2 each, followed by Busch at 5-1 and Johnson and Jarrett at 10-1.

Daytona doings

A five-car crash during Tuesday's practice has forced Jeff Burton (25-1), Elliott Sadler (28-1), and Mike Skinner (50-1) to use backup cars, so be wary of making wagers on them because their crews were scrambling to get ready for Thursday's 125-mile qualifying races.

Those races were to determine starting positions behind pole-sitter Jeff Green and Earnhardt Jr.

* During Speed Week in Daytona, drivers are in high demand for press conferences, corporate shindigs, etc. A lot of fans try to meet their idols and get autographs, but here's an observation: if you're looking to do that, the drivers are much more accessible during their visit to Las Vegas, when they appear at casinos and local restaurants and bars. At Daytona, most drivers are committed to VIP parties being thrown by their corporate sponsors.