02/14/2002 1:00AM

Earnhardt Jr. favored as Daytona starts year

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Auto racing, like horse racing, has a schedule that stretches nearly the entire calendar. It has been less than three months since Jeff Gordon wrapped up his fourth Winston Cup championship season, but the good old boys of NASCAR are starting their season Sunday with the Daytona 500, the most prestigious stock car race in the world.

The auto racing community has mixed emotions leading up to the race, since it was one year ago that racing legend Dale Earnhardt died in a crash at the end of the 500.

It's fitting that his son, Dale Earnhardt Jr., is the 3-1 favorite at the Station Casinos in Las Vegas for this year's event. But Micah Roberts, who sets the racing odds for the Stations' locals casino network from his office at Palace Station, said Junior is not favored for sentimental reasons.

Roberts, who has become the top auto racing oddsmaker in Las Vegas, noted that the younger Earnhardt was second in the Daytona 500 last year, won the the Pepsi 400, the first NASCAR race at Daytona after this father died, and was first at Talladega in the EA Sports 500.

"His team knows how to win the restrictor-plate races at the superspeedways," said Roberts.

Gordon, who edged Earnhardt Jr. in a qualifying race on Thursday at Daytona, is the second choice at 9-2, followed by Bobby Labonte, Tony Stewart, and Dale Jarrett all at 6-1; Sterling Marlin at 7-1; Ricky Rudd at 9-1; and Kevin Harvick, who drives the late Earnhardt's old car, is 10-1. Roberts opened Michael Waltrip, who won last year's Daytona 500, at 35-1, but early money has lowered his odds to 18-1. Jerry Nadeu has also attracted early support, being bet down from 35-1 to 28-1.

Roberts originally put up these odds in December, and he said the money has been coming in steady, though he said probably 50 percent of the total handle will be bet this weekend. In addition, Stations has been taking wagers all week on the undercard of races at Daytona International Speedway - Thursday's Twin 125 qualifying races, Friday's Florida Dodge Dealers 250 Craftsman Truck race, and Saturday's EAS/ NC Live Well 300 Busch Series race.

But the betting options are really extensive for Sunday's featured race. Stations has 13 head-to-head matchups, plus other proposition wagers.

Earnhardt Jr. is pitted against Harvick in one matchup. Earnhardt opened as a -200 (bet $2 to win $1) favorite with Harvick at +165 (bet $1 to win $1.65), but money has come in on the underdog, and Earnhardt was lowered to -180 with Harvick at +150. In another top matchup, Gordon is a -180 favorite vs. Rudd at +150.

An interesting prop bet involves the type of car that wins the race. General Motors drivers are the -130 favorite, with the Ford/Dodge drivers at even money.

Roberts said most of the top contenders (including Gordon, Earnhardt Jr., Labonte, and Stewart) are in GM cars, but the Ford drivers (Jarrett, Rudd, Rusty Wallace, Jeff Burton, among others) got a break recently when NASCAR allowed them to lower their rear spoilers a quarter inch, cutting down on wind resistance.

Since this is the beginning of the NASCAR season, Roberts also has odds on the season-long Winston Cup point championship and other multi-race props.

Even though he isn't favored to win Sunday's 500, Gordon is the 2-1 choice to defend his points championship. Stations lists 19 drivers, plus a "field" bet at 15-1. Stewart is the second choice at 5-2, followed by Jarrett (4-1), Labonte (5-1), and Earnhardt Jr. (6-1).

Since Junior is favored to win Daytona, why isn't he higher on the season-long list?

"Junior has been awesome at the superspeedways," said Roberts, "but he doesn't do well on the road courses and the short tracks. There are two road courses on the Winston Cup circuit and six short tracks, so that's eight races right there that he has had trouble with.

"He also doesn't fare too well at the cookie-cutter ovals in Las Vegas, Chicago, California, and Michigan. Gordon is more consistent overall."

Stations has a prop that asks if Gordon will win over or under 7 1/2 Winston Cup races this year. The under is the -170 favorite with the over at +140.

You can also wager on who racks up the most Winston Cup points in the first three races of the year - Daytona, the Subway 400 at Rockingham on Feb. 24, and the UAW-Daimler Chrysler 400 at Las Vegas on March 3. Gordon and Earnhardt Jr. are co-favorites at 5-2, followed by Jarrett (3-1) and Stewart and Labonte (4-1).

The Las Vegas race, won by Gordon last year, generates the highest handle of any auto race during the year - Roberts estimates about 15 percent higher than the Daytona 500, even though the odds will be up for only a fraction of the time. And this is just the beginning of the season for NASCAR betting devotees, who are settling in for nine months of action.