Friday, May 25, 2007 | 7:28 a.m.
The NASCAR Nextel Cup Coca-Cola 600 highlights a busy weekend for auto racing fans and bettors, overshadowing even the 91st Indianapolis 500 scheduled for earlier Sunday.
The Coke 600, in which Jimmie Johnson is a 4-1 favorite, figures to draw about three times as much money from gamblers at the Las Vegas betting windows as the Indy 500, according to oddsmaker Micah Roberts.
After gaining ground on the Indy 500 in the late 1990s, the Memorial Day weekend NASCAR race surpassed its historic rival in terms of betting handle in 2000, Roberts said - the year Juan Pablo Montoya won at Indy as a rookie driver.
This year Montoya finds himself racing as a rookie again, as he makes his Coke 600 debut as a 25-1 long shot.
The explanation for the dropoff in wagering on the Indy 500 and the surge in NASCAR betting is simple, said Roberts, the sports book director at Sunset Station. It's a reflection of public taste, as race fans have become increasingly drawn to the personalities, competitive teams and rugged style of stock car racing.
Indy still commands enough interest among bettors that Roberts created a series of proposition wagers on the race available for betting at all Station properties in addition to odds on winning the race outright.
The featured prop at Stations links both of Sunday's big races, asking which driver will post a higher finish in his respective race - Johnson in the Coke 600, or two-time Indy 500 champ Helio Castroneves at the Brickyard.
Although just 33 cars are expected to start at Indy to 43 in Charlotte, N.C., Johnson is only a small underdog at plus-110 (risk $1 to net $1.10), with Castroneves listed at minus-140 (risk $1.40 to win $1).
The fact Johnson is not a bigger underdog is a testament to his impressive history in the Coke 600, which he has won three times.
"It truly is an example of just how great Johnson has been in Charlotte, (considering) all of the great competition in NASCAR today," Roberts said.
Johnson's teammate, Jeff Gordon, is a 6-1 second choice to win in Charlotte, followed by Roberts' personal selection, Matt Kenseth at 9-1, and teammates Tony Stewart and Denny Hamlin, each 10-1.
Nextel All-Star Challenge winner Kevin Harvick is listed at 18-1 despite the recent victory, the long odds a result of Harvick's shaky record in long races.
"He's likely to be closer to what he's shown at Texas, Las Vegas and Atlanta over the long haul when he showed in a 20-lap dash," Roberts said, noting his average finish on those three similar tracks was 27th.
Johnson is also listed as the favorite to finish tops among Chevrolet drivers at minus-135, followed by Gordon at plus-110, according to Station odds.
Among Dodge drivers, Kurt Busch is a minus-140 favorite , followed by Ryan Newman at plus-170.
For a long-shot special, Roberts said, don't count out Martin Truex Jr. (45-1), Mark Martin (17-1) or even Montoya.
"Though Montoya had troubles early on last week in the Nextel Open, his quality long runs in Atlanta and Texas are enough to have him considered a quality dark horse," Roberts said.
In contrast to the deep field in the Coke 600, only a handful of drivers have a realistic chance to win the Indy 500, according to Roberts.
After Castroneves, Sam Hornish, Dan Wheldon and Tony Kanaan are each listed at 9-2, with Scott Dixon a 5-1 shot.
Thanks largely to Castroneves and Kanaan, Brazil is a plus-150 favorite in a prop created by Roberts asking from which country the winning driver will hail, followed by the U.S. (plus-200) and England (plus-425).