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Odds are if it happens, you can now bet on it

By Marty Smith, NASCAR.COM

Though executives in all major sports leagues publicly frown upon gambling, legal or otherwise, there is no denying the fact that Las Vegas action signals a certain level of mainstream social significance. And in NASCAR's case, it signals arrival.

"It's a sign the sport is finally considered a real sport," said Craftsman Truck Series driver and Las Vegas native Brendan Gaughan, whose family owns The Orleans Hotel and Casino Resort.

"They don't bet on Indy Car racing. They don't bet on Formula One. They bet on one form of auto racing -- NASCAR."

Whether the Daytona brass wants to judge its arrival in that context is highly unlikely. But according to some Vegas insiders, it is a worthy barometer.

"Used to be I only got asked advice for the Indianapolis 500, but now the interest [in NASCAR] is increasing," said USA Today sports analyst Danny Sheridan, widely considered the authority on sports odds-making.

"If you don't have people betting on your sport, you won't have high [television] ratings. That's a fact of life. Do you know anybody who'd go to a horse track for the beauty of the animals?"

Micah Roberts, who writes a weekly analytical NASCAR picks column for vegasinsider.com and sets the motorsports betting lines for Station Casinos, said the increased NASCAR awareness among bettors is astounding.

"Every year it just grows and grows," Roberts said. "For a sport to come out of nowhere in an eight-year stretch and multiply year-over-year as far as interest, popularity and money coming in, it's unheard of. It really doesn't happen."

And for the record, Roberts would know. This isn't some wannabe Fantasy Racing junkie, self-labeled as expert. He's the authority, according to Las Vegas Motor Speedway public relations director Jeff Motley.

"Micah is the best odds-maker anywhere in the country when it comes to motorsports, including NASCAR," Motley said.

Pennies on the dollar

Roberts said the Las Vegas race carries more wagering action (known as "handle" in the gaming arena) than any other race, due mainly to its proximity and increased local awareness.

More than the Daytona 500. More than the Brickyard 400. More even than the season-ending Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, following which the Nextel Cup champion is crowned.

"Vegas will at least double what we do for Daytona," Roberts said.

That's interesting, considering that the Vegas race carries just two weeks of wagering, while Daytona carries two months.

"It's a combination of more propositions and more casinos making it available, and the fact that they're more knowledgeable and understand it more," Roberts continued.

So just how big is the Vegas race, then? Is it comparable, say, to a National Football League playoff game?

"Daytona I'd compare to a big World Series game, as far as handle, and Las Vegas would be above that," Roberts said. "Las Vegas would be like a major bowl game, or close to a pro football playoff game."

As Gaughan alluded to earlier, from a motorsports perspective gaming on NASCAR is huge. But in the overall scope of sports gambling, it barely registers on the radar.

"Betting on racing is not exploding," he said. "The amount of money that is handled on the entire NASCAR season doesn't even equal one regular season football game."

Consistent expansion

From a sheer numbers standpoint, Gaughan's assessment makes perfect sense. Picking the winner in a football game offers a one-in-two chance for return, whereas a similar bet in a NASCAR race offers much worse odds -- one-in-43.

In turn, driver vs. driver, head-to-head wagers have grown in popularity, as have over/under bets.

Same rush. Better odds.

"When we started here in Las Vegas it was just odds to win, and we expanded by putting odds up on anything you could put an official result on after the race," Roberts said.

Some examples:

Laps led. Lap leaders. Cautions. Winning car number, odd or even? Number of Chevrolets, Fords or Dodges to finish among the top-10. Winning manufacturer. Over/under on margin of victory. First letter in the winning driver's last name.

The odds in each category change multiple times throughout the weekend.

"We take those things and put a number on it, and say 'over/under on Vegas race cautions, six-and-a-half.' And you can take the over or the under like you could on an NFL game.

"We put it in terms people can understand to make it easier, because most of the people that were coming to Vegas for the first time had maybe been to a horse track, but didn't really understand how to bet [on NASCAR]."

That, too, has changed dramatically.

"Over the years they've gotten more comfortable with it, they understand it more and they're a lot more educated that your average fan that bets on some of these things, because for the most part the NASCAR fan is pretty dedicated solely once a week to that NASCAR race, rather than spread across all the other sports like we see with some of the other regular bettors," Roberts said.

The advent of NASCAR's new statistical package also may play a larger role in the future of betting on the sport. NASCAR now is utilizing its "loop data" to help provide a more complete picture of the on-track action.

Among the numerous new statistics is an analysis of driver speeds, the number of cars passed in the straightaways and corners. Additionally, the reports track "quality passes" -- the number of cars in the top 15 a driver passes -- and "closers," the number of positions a driver picks up at the end of the race.

In total, more than 20 new reports are offered after each race.

The stigma

Not unlike sex or religion, gambling is both controversial and provocative. There are often clear lines drawn on the subject. NASCAR, which is Republican and conservative, and publicly bows its collective head to pray each week on national television, has no specific anti-betting policy.

The sanctioning body leaves the onus up to its competitors to conserve the integrity of the sport.

"The rule we go under is 'conduct detrimental to the sport,' " Hunter said. "There's nothing specific to gambling, but we've made all our members aware that we don't want them betting on races.

"We have no problem with anybody betting on other sports. That's entirely up to them. But not racing."

Said Dale Earnhardt Jr.: "Gambling has its pros and cons -- I enjoy a little time spent at the roulette table myself. I get a kick out of people betting on me.

"But with anything losing isn't much fun, so I hate when someone tells me how much I have 'cost' them, as if I knew better I would have finished higher! Otherwise, it's fun to get the guys together and get a table for a few hands."

Given the recent controversies surrounding former University of Washington football coach Rick Neuheisel, who was fired after he bet in an NCAA tournament basketball pool; and Wayne Gretzky's wife, Janet Jones, the topic is hot-button.

"I think our guys know enough to respect it," Hunter continued. "There are all sorts of examples. Pete Rose -- if he's not a great example, I don't know what is. I don't think anyone wants to run the risk of tainting the sport. I'd certainly hope our guys were smart enough to not run that risk.

"We'd take whatever action we think is appropriate if we find out someone is betting [on NASCAR] -- even if it's on themselves."

'Me for 400, Alex'

Hunter, of course, is referring to the February 2004 report in USA Today that Gaughan bet on himself to win the Daytona 500. "A reporter misrepresented me and said I bet on myself to win the Daytona 500," Gaughan explained. "From there he likened it to a Pete Rose sports betting scandal.

"What I said to him is that I'd be confident enough in my team to say 'Hell yeah, I'll bet on us to win the 500.' Have I bet on myself? Yes. I bet on myself to win a Craftsman Truck Series race. Did I win that race? Yes. Did I do it legally? Yes.

"All my guys were sitting around the trailer after Happy Hour, laughing, going, 'Damn we're good, we're going to win this race,' laughing at dinner that we ought to bet.

"Half my team bet on us to win. Is there anything wrong with being that confident? Ten guys bet $20 that day. They won $200. Is that enough to fix a race?"

USA Today stood by its story, and NASCAR ultimately chose not to penalize Gaughan.

"We just had a talk with him," Hunter said. "It was na´ve on his part. We told him the sport would be better off if we didn't do that, and he was fine with that.

"He was a little embarrassed, because he honestly didn't know. Nobody had ever said, 'Don't bet on the races.'"

The big fix

Given the countless variables involved in every NASCAR race, fixing an event would be quite laborious, if not plain ol' impossible. Tires. Spark plugs. Plug wires. Valve springs. Lug nuts. Oil. Gasoline. Brakes. Brake pads. Brake rotors. You get the idea.

Every single variable on every single team, from the grandest to the minutest, and every single individual responsible for perfecting every single variable on every single team, is integral to the event's outcome.

"It is physically impossible to fix a NASCAR race," Gaughan said. "The integrity of NASCAR and the integrity of NASCAR racing is unparalleled in the world of sport.

"There is no possible way, ever, to have any sort of a fixing scandal. Look at Jimmie Johnson winning the Daytona 500. His crew chief [Chad Knaus] got thrown out of the track. He found a unique way to make the piece work.

"They [inspected] the hell out of Jimmie Johnson's car and people still say, 'Well, he cheated.' Did he cheat to win it? Hell no. There's no way.

Vegas odds makers rely on the sport's integrity, as well.

"Everything is dependant upon the dignity of the sport," Roberts said. "NASCAR depends on that, and we depend on the credibility of the sport, also. We can't move the game properly if things go on."

Gaughan scoffs at the thought it is even feasible.

"There's just too many factors in racing to ever hurt the integrity of the NASCAR racing," Gaughan continued. "Look at the conspiracy theorists about Dale Jr. in the Pepsi 400 after his Dad died. Come on.

"So you go through the Room of Doom and every single inspector is helping him get through? You probably end up seeing 32 inspectors. They're all in on it? Plus every team is watching. Then you get out on the track with 42 other drivers. They're all in on it? Come on. No way."

Upping the ante

NASCAR handle in Vegas casinos grows annually, a result of the sport's increased exposure and acceptance. But there is immeasurable room for growth -- especially with the signing of a new network television package.

"That will increase the betting and the viewership," Sheridan said. "It's not, 'Maybe I think it will.' It will.

"All the leagues that failed -- the old CBA, their commissioner tried to get betting lines on his league. He couldn't. They failed.

"If NASCAR were not on TV there would be no betting lines on it. It's not a correlation. It's the real thing."

The NFL is the consummate example.

"Each NFL team, with the new TV contract, gets $100 million per year. They wouldn't get $1 million a year if it weren't for betting," Sheridan said.

"No one's going to watch Arizona play New Orleans if they aren't betting on it. If it weren't for betting, March Madness -- What does March Madness mean? It's the madness of betting March basketball.

"Everybody has an office pool. Am I wrong? I'll jump off a building if the networks don't all have office pool. And there's nothing wrong with that."

More than one expert interviewed for this story commented that more organized gaming -- say a position-spread for each driver's respective finish position -- would result in greater popularity for the sport. Others, of course, take a more traditional approach.

"There are people who will say gaming is what has made the NFL and March Madness such a big deal," Motley said. "I don't know if gaming has made NASCAR explode here.

"I look back to seven years ago. This town looked at [LVMS] as a racetrack that, once a year, had a bunch of people out here. We've done a lot of things to make this track an integral part of the community. Kurt and Kyle Busch, the success they've had, has been huge.

"Certainly having the racetrack here has put NASCAR on the radar screen on the odds makers and casinos. You go into any Sports Book in town and they have odds on that week's race, as well as the championship."

Though NASCAR publicly frowns on the idea of gaming, they allow gaming corporations like Harrah's, Sam's Town and, of course, Orleans', to sponsor teams and events.

"Ninety-seven to 99 percent of sports bettors are responsible," Sheridan said. "You could say if it weren't a popular sport, people wouldn't watch. It's popular with people betting.

"The more people promote Jimmie Johnson's controversy, or the fights they have, it's great. There is no bad publicity. With drivers complaining about NASCAR, it's great.

"You have a pretty boy -- and I don't mean that in a derogatory fashion -- Jeff Gordon coming down to speak at the GMAC Bowl. It's exposure. It's things like that that are huge for the sport. That's the engine that's driving the interest.

"The next level is if you can bet online or in Nevada. And you can, at least on the big races. You can bet every day on the week on who's going to win the Nextel Cup."
© 2006 Cyber Speed Design