02/12/2004 1:00AM

NASCAR leads off with its main event


Although the Daytona 500 is the first NASCAR race of the season, it has been called the Super Bowl of the stock car circuit.

If you walk into a Las Vegas sports book this weekend, especially one run by Station Casinos, you'll see that the analogy isn't too far-fetched. A lot of space on the betting boards is devoted to the odds to win "The Great American Race," and there are enough props to make Paul Tagliabue jealous.

"Certainly in terms of being the biggest event of the NASCAR season and the prestige it has, it is the Super Bowl of NASCAR," said Micah Roberts, who sets the auto racing odds for all of the Station Casinos from his office at the Palace Station. "Since there hasn't been a race since last year's season ended, we've had the odds to win the race up for a while. That's where we see most of our action, but the bettors also like looking at all the props and trying to find an edge. There's a lot of ways to play the race."

The first thing most handicappers want to see is that the races at the superspeedways at Daytona and Talladega are run with restrictor plates on the carburetors. The top drivers for the team of Dale Earnhardt Inc. - Michael Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt Jr - have won nine of the last 12 restrictor-plate races and four of the last six at Daytona.

Waltrip, who has won two of the last three Daytona 500s, is the 7-2 favorite at Stations. His teammate, Earnhardt Jr., was available at 4-1 the last few weeks at Stations - and 5-2 or 3-1 at other sports books around town - but Roberts said Thursday morning he was on the verge of dropping Earnhardt Jr.'s odds to 7-2 or 3-1 (and that was before Junior won the first Twin 125 qualifying races Thursday).

Other top contenders include Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick, both at 7-1; Jeff Gordon and Dale Jarrett at 10-1; Rusty Wallace at 12-1; and Tony Stewart at 15-1. Jarrett in particular has been attracting a lot of bets lately. He was at 18-1 a week ago but has been pounded down to 10-1. Why, you might ask?

"He won the Bud Shootout last week," Roberts said, "and a lot of people know that the last two times he won the Bud Shootout (1996 and 2000) he went on to win the 500."

Jarrett has also received support in a head-to-head matchup with Brendan Gaughan, a Las Vegas native. The wager is just like head-to-head wagers in horseracing, where you don't have to win the race, just finish ahead of the opponent. Jarrett opened at -150, with Gaughan at +120, and has been bet up to -180. Roberts has 10 matchups in all, highlighted by Earnhardt -125 over Waltrip +105.

But that's the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the props available on this race. Stations also has "group props," where you try to pick the top finisher out of four drivers (for instance, Johnson -110, Gordon +110, Brian Vickers +200, Terry Labonte +400). It's harder to pick, because you have to beat three cars instead of just one, but the payoffs are higher.

Another option is betting pairs of drivers to earn more Nextel Cup points (formerly known as Winston Cup points) than another pairs, such as Waltrip/Earnhardt -210 over Gordon/Johnson +175.

The types of props above ask handicappers to compare a limited number of drivers/teams against each other, but another genre requires them to look at the whole field. These props are attractive to people who want a lot of drivers to cheer for on a single bet. How about cars numbered 0-23 (at odds of -210) vs. 24-99 (+175)? Or all Chevrolets (-240) vs. all Fords and Dodges (+190)? Or all drivers with last names beginning with A-L (-140) vs. M-Z (+110)? Or betting the winning car will have an odd number (+150) or an even number (-180)?

With the season starting, odds are also available on who will win the first Nextel Cup title. Johnson and Ryan Newman are the co-favorites at 5-2, followed by Gordon at 7-2, Earnhardt Jr. at 9-2, Stewart at 5-1, and defending champ Matt Kenseth at 8-1. Roberts said he adjusted the odds when NASCAR announced its new scoring format, but now he's confident the numbers are solid.

"We'll keep these odds up untouched through at least the Vegas race [March 7]," he said. "That's when we'll get the most action on these, about three to four times more than we'll have before then."

For those who don't want to tie up their money through the end of the season in November, there is a mini-future book available on the standings through the first three races of the year: Daytona, Rockingham (Feb. 22), and Las Vegas. Earnhardt Jr. is the 7-2 favorite, followed by Johnson at 4-1, Gordon at 6-1, Stewart at 8-1, Harvick at 8-1, and another Las Vegas native, Kurt Busch, also at 8-1.

Gentlemen, start your betting.