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The last thing I wanted to do was have Danica Patrick be the lead story of this year’s Daytona 500 preview, but it’s just too unique a story to ignore.

After weighing out all the storylines for this year’s event, the topper is a rookie Sprint Cup driver who has never had much success in any NASCAR series. But after becoming the first woman to ever win a Cup series pole position, and do it for the Super Bowl of this sport, the intrigue of her story is the main headline.

Of course Patrick has a few attributes that make her a little more attractive than any other who might have won the pole. She’s got the TMZ-type of media buzz already following her, which far outweighs any type of coverage any NASCAR or sports media could ever conjure up.

Patrick brought the eyes of hundreds of thousands of new fans to a sport they may not have otherwise thought of watching. It also helps sell her news because she’s very easy on the eyes.

There’s also the angle of Patrick dating fellow rookie driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr., the type of romance never seen before in NASCAR, but the one Hollywood tabloids have been dishing out since movie producers figured out films sold better when the headlining actors were seen in public together.

As sensational as all that may be, none drew the main consideration for leading with Patrick here. Her tie into being the main Daytona 500 story in Las Vegas is that she has been the most bet driver, male or female, good-looking or hideous, single or linked.

Las Vegas bettors have got Danica Patrick fever, and the betting trend that has seen her drop from as high as 125-to-1 odds down to as low as 22-to-1 odds at William Hill, started long before she won the Daytona 500 pole position on Sunday.

Drivers with high odds, male or female, always attract action at the betting windows because every once in a while in NASCAR a bomb does hit, whether it’s Regan Smith at Darlington paying 200-1 or Trevor Bayne in the Daytona 500 two years ago at 100-1. That alone made regular NASCAR bettors take a flier on her for $5 or $10.

As small as the bets may seem, they add up quickly when giving odds at over 100-1. The drivers at the bottom of the list always have the highest liability just because of the high odds. Now, when you mix in a driver of Patrick’s high profile, that figure goes up considerably compared to someone like Bobby Labonte (100-1) or Casey Mears (200-1).

When Patrick had a good Daytona preseason test session in January, bettors took a liking to her a little more and wagered accordingly. But the big burst of action came on Saturday when Patrick was the fastest in the final practice session in a mock qualifying trim, which was a major sign that she was the favorite to win the pole in Sunday’s qualifying.

Aliante sports book manager Fred Crespi has slowly been dropping her odds over the last week just because a large amount of risk had been incurred on the small wagers.

“She’s definitely creating a buzz at the (bet) windows,” said Crespi. “We have more tickets written on her for the Daytona 500 than anyone, even Dale Earnhardt Jr, who is always the most popular which kind of puts her popularity into perspective.”

Crespi moved Patrick’s odds down to 50-to-1 following her pole setting run on Sunday. And he’ll probably keep moving her lower down the chart because Patrick is bringing a new audience to the sport and to the sports books.

At this juncture, most of her fans just want to be a part of the fun and add some excitement to the event. To make the rooting interest have the most fun, a wager of any kind will do the trick. The sports books will meet those demands and offer plenty of entertaining Danica-themed props.

On Valentine’s Day, Crespi made a sweetheart Daytona 500 matchup between Patrick and Stenhouse as to which would have the better finish. Stenhouse was placed at -190, Patrick at +160.

The opinion on that Valentine’s Day prop offered by the Aliante book prop says a lot about how the books think Patrick will do on Sunday. It’s rare to see any restrictor-plate race matchup priced at OVER -150 no matter who the drivers are because the races are so volatile. Any driver can see their day end by no fault of their own in an instant.

On one side you have Patrick, who has fared well in plate races, but overall has been disappointing in NASCAR. On the other side you have Stenhouse, who won last year’s Nationwide Series Championship, and is driving the No. 17 Roush Racing Ford – the same car that Matt Kenseth drove to two Daytona 500 wins, including last season.

Stenhouse is an accomplished driver on the rise with a great team, while Patrick has a great car, goes fast on laps when there are no other cars around her, but doesn’t have the stock car skills of Stenhouse yet.

However, the one equalizer here is the new Gen-6 car. Drivers have been racing like they’re on ice because the smaller spoiler makes the rear of the car way more sensitive than in the past. We’ve seen major wrecks in every practice and test session when there were cars pack racing and we saw it again in Saturday night’s Sprint Unlimited which was the first competitive racing of the season.

The drivers are cautious and will all be learning on the fly, which kind of brings everyone to the same level. Tony Stewart, Kevin Harvick and Earnhardt Jr. all have a great edge in plate racing because they feel the draft better than most, but with the new car, some of that edge goes away.

On Sunday we should see the drivers all being very respectful of each other with hopes of just going along in cruise control for the first 190 laps, but in those last 10 laps, it may be the longest in history riddled with cautions.

It seems that drivers have been avoiding the inevitable during their learning curve. They don’t want to try things in practice because they know they’ll get in trouble and ruin a car. And after the big wreck in the Sprint Unlimited, they all kind of played it safe as well.

Thursday’s Budweiser Duels will determine where the rest of the 41 drivers qualify based on their finish. Patrick and Jeff Gordon are locked in to the front row, unless one of them crashes during the Duels. This will be the drivers’ final chance to learn things before Sunday’s race and you can bet that even though they’ll be driving on egg shells, we’ll see a few pile ups.

There will be three practice sessions following Thursday’s Duels, but you can expect several drivers to go through the motions with some not even participating. 

But just when I suggest that the field might be dummied up a bit, we do have to consider what we saw in the Sprint Unlimited where two of the elite plate racers were battling it out for the win. So while I can talk all I want about everyone being on a level playing field because of the Gen-6 car, the cream rose to the top when it mattered most.

I think something similar will happen again in the Daytona 500. There will be two factions in the race: one that wants to get out front early to avoid traffic and second that drops to the back to avoid traffic. I like my chances with the driver out front and the Joe Gibbs cars all have that ability.

Oscar Night

Once the race is over you can head on down to the Palms and play a free Oscars contest. They have 12 categories to choose from on the major awards and all you have to do is select the most winners and $7,500 is yours.

It’s a fantastic promotion and we applaud vice-president of marketing Sheri Long for bringing something like this to Las Vegas. The only requirement is that you sign up for a Palms Players card.

Micah Roberts is a former Las Vegas race and sports book director, and longtime motorsports columnist and sports analyst at GamingToday. Contact Micah at [email protected].

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