NHRA rips through Las Vegas; Cup in Martinsville

Apr 3, 2001 8:07 AM

For those who feel tremors in Las Vegas this weekend, have no fear, it’s just the rumbling thunder of Nitro-driven force coming from Summitracing.com Nationals on  “The Strip” at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. NHRA Winston Drag Racing makes its second appearance on the Strip and, if last year’s event is any indication, there might not be a more fan-friendly show in town.

            Because of the great show put on last year, Las Vegas gets this weekend’s return date in addition to a second date later this fall. Not only does that mean twice the fun for Vegas motor sports fans, but also two more opportunities for area sports books to offer wagering. Station Casino’s sports books unveiled their odds Monday which include odds to win on Top Fuel, Funny Car, and Pro Stock divisions along with six driver match-ups.

            “We had a tremendous amount of action on the races last season and the response was kind of surprising,” said Palace Station’s Race and Sports Book Director Rob Terry. “We put the odds up only because it was in town without knowing what to expect, but bettors were definitely into it, so it’s now a staple with us.”

            Two weeks ago in Houston, Top Fuel driver Mike Dunn (3-1) won the event and also set a record by going 331 mph. Top Fuel is the most competitive division despite some of the top names like Tony Schumacher (8-1), Gary Scelzi (5-1), and last year’s Vegas winner Kenny Bernstein (7-1) not having done much through three events which have all had three different winners.

            Funny Car driver John Force (2-1) is the one to watch. His great reaction time in his Castrol GTX Mustang has made a record-breaking name for himself, but his charisma out of the car is what has made him a legend. Disappointed last year by not winning in the bright lights of Vegas, he’ll be hard pressed to beat this weekend. He’s had two wins in the three events this year.

            The Pro Stock series has a dominant force also in Warren Johnson (9-5). He’s won twice already and thus far his only competition looks to be Kurt Johnson (3-1) who has the only other Pro Stock win.

            Be sure to meet and greet the drivers while they’re in town. They are the most accessible athletes in the world, and they love their fans. Thursday Night Gary Scelzi and Bruce Sarver will be at Santa Fe Station from 5:30 p.m.-8:30 p.m. signing free autographs. Also Thursday, Race Rock downtown will have several drivers signing as well.

            NASCAR’s Winston Cup Series finally had a familiar feel to it last week at Texas. Points leader Dale Jarrett won for the second time, but still, some of the key series regulars are missing in action. Jeff Burton’s demise is the biggest unexplained wonder. After seven races, pre-season favorite Burton is sitting 35th. He’s not alone, either. The other co-favorite, Tony Stewart, has been awful, while his teammate Bobby Labonte has been just as bad.

            This week at Martinsville, the track becomes an equalizer. It allows for nearly every driver to have a legitimate shot at winning. In the last 11 races at Martinsville, there have been eight different winners, with Jeff Gordon (7-2) being the only multiple winner of the group over that span. In three of those races, that payoff for the bettor was extraordinary. Ricky Rudd’s win in ’98 was 60-1, Bobby Hamilton’s win in ’98 paid off at 40-1, and John Andretti’s win in ’99 fetched 45-1.

            It’s bumper car racing at it’s best. The track doesn’t allow for much passing because of the flat tight half mile configuration so there will be plenty of irritated eager drivers who are sure to get themselves into trouble. Due to the lack of passing, qualifying takes on a more important role than any other track. Once a driver starts up front, where there is less traffic, he’s likely to stay there for the better part of the race.

            Jeff Gordon (7-2) is the favorite coming in this week. He has three career wins at Martinsville and has finished in the Top 5 ten times in his 16 starts. The past has meant little in nearly every race this season, but what has meant everything is the consistency during 2001. Gordon is the only driver to finish in the Top 5 in five of the seven races. His knack for being able to find the slightest opening for the pass will be beneficial for him this week as well as having the continued strong set-up from his team.

            Rusty Wallace (4-1) is the active leader in wins at Martinsville with six. He has always been a great qualifier at Martinsville, but hasn’t won there since ’96. He’s also having all sorts of trouble on the season adding to the long list of Winston Cup stars’ nightmare seasons.

            Kevin Harvick (8-1) is no longer just Dale Earnhardt’s replacement, he’s established himself as one of the top drivers on tour. He has been terrific on every type track thus far, but his roots make him special on the short tracks. He displayed his talents two weeks ago at Bristol, a race he might have won had his tire held up. His amazing truck and Busch Series career on the short tracks only tell half the story of his talents on these type of tracks. The other half goes to Mesa Marin Speedway in Bakersfield, where he bumped and banged his way into NASCAR. Look for another great performance Sunday.

            Some long shots to keep an eye on since Martinsville has proved to be profitable in that area:

            Bobby Hamilton (20-1): Went wire to wire in ’98 Martinsville win. His current team has been one of the pleasant surprises on the season.

            Casey Atwood (65-1): His aggressive short track nature had always served him well in the Busch Series. He’s shown glimpses of what he and his car is capable of on the bigger tracks. This will be like home for him.

            John Andretti (22-1): Second place finish at Bristol two weeks ago where all the Petty cars qualified well for meaning their short track set-up is good. Out-fought everyone two years for strong finish and win.

            Ricky Rudd (10-1): though not much of a long shot, he’s been consistent this season and is extremely due for a win. He has three wins at Martinsville.