05/23/2006 11:00PM

Nextel Cup outgunning Indy betting

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Ask the general public to name this country's biggest horse race and they'll say the Kentucky Derby. The Breeders' Cup Classic has the biggest purse, but tradition stands for a lot, so the Derby gets the nod.

Ask the general public to name this country's biggest auto race. For the longest time, the Indianapolis 500 would have been the runaway consensus answer, but the Daytona 500 has been gaining ground with the popularity of stock car racing.

People still might say "Indy" out of habit when asked the question, but the fact is that "racing's greatest spectacle" isn't even the most popular race run on the last Sunday in May. Since 2002, the Coca-Cola 600 has had better Nielsen ratings than the Indy 500. And here in Nevada, betting handle on the Nextel Cup race has also blown past the Indy cars.

"We'll probably handle 40 percent more on the Nextel Cup race," said Micah Roberts, auto racing oddsmaker for Station Casinos. "The Indianapolis 500 is an American institution, and it still is, kind of, but they've ruined the sport with all the fighting" between the competing Indy Racing League and Championship Auto Racing Teams circuits.

"There are other reasons, too," said Roberts. "The Indy cars don't go as fast, and no one knows the drivers as much as when A.J. Foyt and Mario Andretti were around. I love all forms of auto racing, but if I was just a regular fan and didn't have to follow the Indy cars for my job, I don't know if I would. The Nascar drivers are just so much more colorful and personable. Most people can probably name twice as many Nextel Cup drivers as Indy car drivers."

Roberts has had Indianapolis 500 odds up since early April and has been surprised at the lack of interest. In fact, two weeks ago, he said the Busch Series race (the level below Nextel Cup) at Darlington outhandled early Indy betting. But tradition is tradition, so he expects handle to spike this weekend.

Helio Castroneves is the 3-1 Indy favorite, followed by Sam Hornish Jr. at 7-2, Dan Wheldon at 5-1 and Scott Dixon at 6-1, and Tony Kanaan at 10-1. Danica Patrick, last year's media darling and probably the only reason the Indy ratings haven't slipped further, is 25-1.

As with most major sporting events, proposition wagers are readily available. Stations has 11 head-to-head matchups and four four-group matchups (you try to pick the top finisher among a group of four). With Castroneves and Kanaan being from Brazil, along with 20-1 choice Vitor Meira, there is also a prop in which you can take Brazil at +170 vs. the world, or -200 if you think the winner will come from any other country.

Tying Sunday's two big races together is a prop with Castroneves's finish in the Indy 500 vs. Jimmie Johnson's finish in the Coca-Cola 600. Castroneves is a -200 favorite with Johnson at +170.

That might be a tall order, as Johnson has won the last three 600's and five of the last six Nextel Cup points races at Lowe's Motor Speedway in Charlotte, N.C., as well as the Nextel All-Star Challenge last Saturday night.

Johnson is the 4-1 favorite Sunday, with Jeff Gordon at 7-1 and Greg Biffle and Kasey Kahne at 8-1.

Stations has 10 head-to-head matchups, seven four-group matchups, and props ranging from the winning manufacturer (Chevrolet -175 vs. Ford or Dodge at +145), if the winning car will be odd- or even-numbered (even at -155, odd at +125) or if it'll be over or under 23 1/2 (over at -140, under at +110).

After last week's all-star break, the future book for the season championship shows Johnson as the 7-2 favorite, with Gordon and Matt Kenseth at 9-2, Tony Stewart at 5-1, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. at 6-1.

Arena underdogs look live

Last weekend in the opening round of the Arena Football League playoffs, the Arizona Rattlers routed the Utah Blaze 57-34 as 4-point favorites on Saturday afternoon, but then all three road teams pulled outright upsets on Sunday.

This weekend, the four teams that received first-round byes host those survivors. The dogs could be live again.

On Saturday, the Dallas Desperados are -6 vs. the Georgia Force and the San Jose Sabercats are -6 vs. the Arizona Rattlers. On Sunday, the defending champion Colorado Crush are -7 1/2 vs. the Chicago Rush and the Orlando Predators are -3 vs. the Philadelphia Soul.

Las Vegas Sports Consultants has Dallas as the 2-1 favorite to win ArenaBowl XX, which will be held at the Thomas and Mack Center in Las Vegas on June 11, with Colorado at 5-2, San Jose and Orlando at 4-1, Philadelphia at 6-1, Arizona at 7-1, Georgia at 8-1 and Chicago at 9-1.

'Ultimate' challenge in L.A.

The biggest boxing match this weekend is a bantamweight title bout on HBO between Fernando Montiel and Jhonny Gonzalez, which is pick-em.

Like Nextel Cup bypassing Indy-car racing, mixed martial arts fighting has been closing the gap on boxing. Ultimate Fighting Championships 60 takes place Saturday night at the Staples Center in Los Angeles with seven bouts.

The headliner is the bout between Royce Gracie, one of the early legends of the sport, vs. Matt Hughes, who has dominated the welterweight division and wants to be known as the best ultimate fighter of all time (and who's going to argue with him?). Hughes is a solid -300 favorite, and if he gets a knockout, he can say, "Say good night, Gracie."