11/17/2004 1:00AM

There's no lull for Nascar bettors now


LAS VEGAS - When the Nascar Nextel Cup series revamped the way it crowns its season-long champion - bunching up the top 10 drivers from the first 26 races of the year and having them conduct a chase to the championship over the last 10 races - the intent was to create more excitement for the fans.

Mission accomplished.

At a time of year when the points championship was usually a foregone conclusion and Nascar was relegated to the back of newspaper sports sections, this year Nascar is still on the front page and TV ratings are up 1 Nielsen point (equal to about 1 million households).

And auto racing bet-takers in Las Vegas are seeing more business, too.

"As far as handle goes, we've seen a huge increase over the past few years," said Micah Roberts, race and sports book director at the Palace Station and the top auto racing oddsmaker in town. "In the past, we would see the handle on the Nascar races drop about 40 percent after the football season started. This year it's remained consistent. Bettors who bet on football and auto racing fit the same profile, and whereas in the past where they might have put 80 percent of their bankroll on football, with the added interest in the Nextel Cup races they're keeping it at 50-50."

Kurt Busch leads the points race heading into Sunday's Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, but he is only 18 points ahead of Jimmie Johnson, who has won four of the last five races on the circuit. Four-time champ Jeff Gordon is only 21 points behind Busch, and Roberts said Gordon is the most likely to win the title.

"Gordon obviously has the most experience, which is important in a situation like this, but he also had the fastest practice times over the track two weeks ago," Roberts said. "If it was just me betting on the most likely winner, I'd have to go with Gordon."

But in his role as oddsmaker and bet-taker, Roberts has Johnson as the 5-6 favorite, Gordon at even money, and Busch at 5-2. Among other drivers with a mathematical chance to overtake the leaders, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is 8-1 and Mark Martin is 15-1.

"We have more risk on Johnson in our season wagers, so I had to lower his odds and try to entice more action on the other drivers," Roberts said.

The red-hot Johnson is also getting significant action in the odds to win Sunday's race. He opened at 5-1, but now he's a 4-1 co-favorite along with Gordon. Busch is 12-1. Roberts will also have head-to-head driver matchups and prop bets available.

While some sports books only show football games on NFL Sundays, Roberts said he expects to see his regular group of Nascar fans in the sports book on Sunday, watching a dedicated screen for the race along with the gridiron action. He also said the race can be viewed at Palace Station in Jack's Irish Pub.

Will might make Wright again?

The biggest live sporting event of the weekend will be Saturday night at Mandalay Bay, where Ronald "Winky" Wright puts his WBA light heavyweight title belt on the line against "Sugar" Shane Mosley.

Boxing fans had a full card of four heavyweight fights last Saturday from Madison Square Garden, in which Chris Byrd and John Ruiz retained their belts in separate bouts and Evander Holyfield lost to Larry Donald in what many people hope was Holyfield's final fight before he further tarnishes his legacy. But while the heavyweight division usually gets the most attention, the lower weight classes usually produce more exciting bouts.

Wright-Mosley should live up to its hype. When the two fighters met in March, it was more commonly referred to as Mosley-Wright, and Wright was a 3-1 underdog. But Wright dominated and won a unanimous decision (117-111 on two judges' scorecards and 116-112 on the other). In Saturday's rematch, Wright is a -220 favorite, with Mosley available at +180.

Holidays alter some handicapping contests

The Imperial Palace's "Super Saturday" handicapping contest is going on hiatus for the holidays after its progressive bonus was hit last week. The contest is expected to return on Saturday, Jan. 1.

* After this Friday's contest, Coast Casinos will also put its "Free $3,000 Pick 5 at Hollywood Park" contest on hold next week for the Thanksgiving holiday. It will then resume, running Wednesdays through Fridays through the end of the Hollywood meet, Dec. 20. The Coast race books have a new website, coastrace.com.

* As of this writing, the Excalibur and its sister properties were still planning to conduct their free handicapping contests next week. Wednesday's contest is held concurrently with the Edgewater in Laughlin, and Friday's contest is run along with the Circus Circus in Reno.

Bonus picks from Stardust contestants

At the Stardust Invitational tournament Friday night, there will be 28 selections available.

This week's featured matchup, in which two handicappers square off in head-to-head competition by giving seven football picks, including a best bet, is between radio host "Papa" Joe Chevalier and Cal State-Hayward statistics professor Mike Orkin. Last week, Jimmy Vaccaro and Cesar Robaina both went 3-4 and lost their best bets, so they will be giving seven more selections apiece this week to try to break the tie in their quarterfinal match.

Despite the losing records last week, Stardust contestants are a combined 94-54-2 (63.5 percent) this year and, even with the 0-2 mark last week, are 13-7 (65 percent) with best bets.

The show takes place live in the sports book from 9-10 p.m. Friday and is aired on KDWN AM-720 and kdwn.com