Feb 27, 2001 7:25 AM

As somber as moods may be around the NASCAR world, if there’s any town that can lift sagging spirits, Las Vegas is it. With all the pageantry of the Glitter Gulch, Las Vegas has become the favorite destination during the NASCAR tour, as evidenced by drivers’ polls.

This weekend, the Las Vegas Motor Speedway hosts its fourth Winston Cup race. Drivers and crews aren’t the only ones who look forward to Vegas. The fans who come in droves from all over get a chance to watch NASCAR, along with all the amenities Vegas offers that other Cup cities don’t. Another aspect you won’t find at any other stop is legal wagering.

Every sports book in Las Vegas will offer an assortment of odds and propositions for the race. It has become a major event in Las Vegas for area books.

"As far as our auto racing goes, the Vegas race is second only to Daytona in handle," said Mandalay Bay sports book manager Hugh Citron. "And that is because we have Daytona odds posted for six weeks prior to the actual race. We’ll have the Vegas race up for only five days before the event, and come pretty close to matching the volume of action."

The favorite for this weekend’s event is Jeff Burton (3-1). Little justification is needed to explain why he’s "The Man" in Las Vegas. In the three previous Vegas races, Burton won the last two and finished second in the inaugural race. The setup engineered by crew chief Frank Stoddard and car owner Jack Roush, coupled with the instincts of Burton, has been unbeatable at the 1½-mile flat track. The only driver to topple Burton in Vegas has been Mark Martin (7-1), another Roush driver.

Roush Racing has been the king of Vegas racing in all series since the track opened, dating all the way back to Joe Ruttman’s 1997 truck series win. In the track’s brief history, Roush Racing has claimed two victories in the Truck Series, two of four in the Busch Series and all three Winston Cup series wins. A trend has been established. Roush has won the last five NASCAR events in Las Vegas. Luck has no bearing in this Vegas story, it’s simply dominance.

Is there anyone who can beat Jeff Burton and Roush Racing? The way parity is shaping up in the Winston Cup Series, this year may be the best opportunity for the field to the stables of Roush’s Fords. Some of the top candidates will be driving Fords. Nine of the top five finishers in the three Vegas races have been Fords.

The top two Ford teams besides Roush are Yates and Penske. Yates brings Dale Jarrett (6-1) and Ricky Rudd (8-1). Penske brings Rusty Wallace (10-1) and Jeremy Mayfield (14-1). Both Wallace and Mayfield claim a top-five performance at Vegas. Rudd holds the track qualifying record he set last year.

The Chevys have an impressive group led by Hendrick Motorsports’ Jeff Gordon (5-1). Vegas is one of the few tracks where Gordon has yet to win in his career. Similar wide tracks, such as California, have been no problem for Gordon, but in his three starts he has finished 17th, 3rd and 28th. The poor finish last season may be attributed to growing pains with then-new crew chief Robbie Loomis, but it appears the Dupont program is ready to roll again, from indications of test speeds prior to the season. An added incentive for Gordon is the "No Bull 5" Winston Million bonus. The top five finishers – Kenny Wallace, Joe Nemechek, Gordon, Terry Labonte and Mike Skinner - from last season’s fall Talladega race are eligible for the million-dollar bonus if they win this Sunday. Vegas is 2-for-2 in bonus giveaways with Burton taking home the prize each time. Gordon has won three bonuses over his career in the eight times he was eligible, second best in NASCAR to Burton.

The other Chevys to watch are the Dale Earnhardt, Inc. drivers. Steve Park (16-1), Dale Earnhardt, Jr (14-1), and Michael Waltrip (25-1) have become major factors in the young season. Earnhardt Jr. led the most laps in last season’s race before the rain stopped it when it was barely half over.

Junior is racing with a heavy heart and a legacy placed upon his shoulders like no other before him. Fortunately for him and his legion of fans, he’s got the program allowing him to produce wins and tears of joy. After the fender-bender on the first lap at Rockingham last Sunday, a win in Vegas by Junior would be the greatest feel-good sports story of the year. The Pontiacs of Bobby Labonte (9-2) and Tony Stewart (6-1), led by Joe Gibbs aren’t the Grand Prix entries to watch for. Johnny Benson (18-1) set the unofficial track record four weeks ago in testing. Benson, once a former Roush driver, has a fifth and sixth place finish in Vegas in his three starts. He’s probably the best long shot on the board to win the race. Benson’s team did its most extensive preseason testing at Las Vegas. They hope to use all their notes to get Benson his first-career win.

Labonte and Stewart have no weaknesses. They are contenders to win at every track. Both had top five finishes last season in Vegas. They’re the top tandem in NASCAR, but still must take a back seat to Roush’s Burton and Martin in Vegas.

The Dodges are still a mystery. All the secrecy of their poor preseason testing was forgotten by some because of their great performance at Daytona. They did extremely well in the opener, but that was with restrictor plates and Superspeedway aero-packages that leveled the playing field for everyone.

The real test comes when it’s flat-out horsepower vs. horsepower and who has the reins. The top driver is Ward Burton (8-1). Despite the uncertainty of the Dodges, Ward Burton’s odds reflect the respect for his skills at this track. His memorable second place finish two years ago still lingers. If any of the Dodges do anything, it’ll be his No. 22.

Las Vegas Propositions

One of the great things about Las Vegas hosting the race is the numerous propositions displayed in epic Super Bowl proportions. Station Casinos’ nine properties and the Imperial Palace will lead the way. The I.P. is always famous for rolling out props using a drivers finish position against Shaq’s missed free throws. Be sure to check them. Some Stations props include team vs. team match-ups, pole qualifying odds, and Busch Series odds to win and match-ups.

Enjoy the weekend and good luck!


1) No. 8 Dale Earnhardt, Jr. (14-1) 4) No. 99 Jeff Burton (3-1)

2) No. 24 Jeff Gordon (5-1) 5) No. 10 Johnny Benson (18-1)

3) No. 20 Tony Stewart (6-1)

Vegas bookmakers choices to win Daytona 500:

Rob Terry, Palace Station: Dale Earnhardt Jr. "He’ll have not only Las Vegas pulling for him, but the whole nation. I hope he does it."

Hugh Citron, Mandalay Bay: Jeff Gordon. "This is his year. He’s back! Time to take the first step and take what is his: first Vegas, then the championship."

Mark Rubin, Santa Fe Station: Jeff Burton. "How can anyone go against Burton? He has too many intangibles in his favor."

Jeff Stoneback, Excalibur: Mark Martin. "Jeff Burton gets all the attention here, but Martin will have the same setup. Great spot for him."

Mark Bryant, Wild Wild West: Ricky Rudd. "I like the Fords here and Rudd will have the car to do it."