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Indy 500 & Coca-Cola 600 preview

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This Sunday has to be the best motor sports day of the year, a day where fans all over the world are sure to tune in to one of the three outstanding races on television. In you’re an insane speed freak -- the good kind -- like me, you’ll be watching all three beginning at the early hours of the morning with Formula One’s Monaco Grand Prix. A few hours later, we get to watch the 100th anniversary race of the Indianapolis 500. And then, after some lunch, its NASCAR time with the longest race of the season, the Coca-Cola 600 from Charlotte.

All three of the races are considered one of the series most prestigious races. For the Indy 500, it may be the most prestigious race in the world. Even as the Indy car series has declined in races per year with most of the television coverage hidden away on the hunting channel, the Indy 500 is an American institution that has appeal for every auto racing fan across the world.

The race crosses over into mainstream America just because it has so much tradition. It's been the back drop to so many family barbeques on Memorial Day weekend that it has sort of become part of the family.

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Here in Las Vegas we get the added excitement of betting on each of the races. Just about every sports book in town has odds up for the Indy 500 and Coca-Cola 600, but only the Las Vegas Hilton Super Book offers odds weekly on F-1 races.

When handicapping the Indy 500 the last 11 years, it’s been rather simple because all you have to do is look at the drivers from the top teams, about seven of the 33 drivers, and then throw out the rest. The main beneficiaries over the years have been the Ganassi and Penske teams with Andretti and Rahal drivers snatching three wins themselves.

This season we have a new major player in the game joining the Penske and Ganassi super-teams as contenders. Las Vegas resident Sam Schmidt has a team that should challenge for the win this season led by pole sitter Alex Tagliani, another Las Vegas resident. The other strong challenger will be Townsend Bell who starts fourth.

Both of the Schmidt drivers weren’t expected to do well and had future odds placed very high on them prior to some of the practices and Saturday’s qualifying. The Hilton had juicy numbers of 60/1 on Tagliani with 75/1 on Bell. The current odds have them 7/1 and 30/1 respectively.

The favorites to win the race still remain Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon at 7/2 with Will Power (6/1), Helio CastroNeves (10/1) and Ryan Briscoe (12/1) close behind, but their edge over the rest of the field no longer makes them as attractive. Bettors now have a legitimate opportunity to cash in at some pretty good odds.

Top 5 Indy 500 Finish Prediction:

1) #3 Helio CastroNeves (10/1)
2) #77 Alex Tagliani (7/1)
3) #12 Will Power (6/1)
4) #99 Townsend Bell (30/1)
5) #9 Scott Dixon (7/2)

We gained a lot of knowledge in last week’s All-Star race at Charlotte that should help gain an edge in betting this week’s race on the same track. Most of us knew the Roush drivers would do well in the race, but no one saw a complete sweep of every event and segment. Carl Edwards won the race, Greg Biffle led a segment and David Ragan won the qualifying race. The only Roush driver to not win anything was Matt Kenseth, who had the best car on the track after 10 laps.

Even though most of the NASCAR teams won’t bring the same exact car they raced with last week, it’s pretty clear who the drivers to key on this week are. Kenseth becomes an even bigger player this week because of his success on the long runs in that race. Just as Kenseth started to get going better than everyone else, the segment would end. On Sunday night, it’s almost like things never end as they go 600 miles.

The combination of Kenseth being able to save tires for long runs, his team balancing his car perfect for the race and his past success on the 1.5-mile tracks this season make him the driver to beat this week. There is also the added attraction of Kenseth using his winning Texas chassis, a car that dominating leading nine times for a race high 169 laps.

Jimmie Johnson is a six-time winner at Charlotte and once won this race three times in a row. He should perform well, but winning the race seems a bit unlikely at this point based on the way he’s run on similar tracks this season. He was very ordinary at both Las Vegas and Texas. The car he's bringing this week has only one race to its credit and it was a very ordinary 15th-place finish at Darlington. As odd as it sounds, he may be a driver to go against getting plus-money in a few matchups.

Kyle Busch should be the one to be the biggest thorns in the side of the Roush drivers. Not only did he have a career best runner-up finish in the All-Star race, but he’s finished eighth of better in his last seven Charlotte starts which include two third-place finishes in the 600. The only negative, besides him getting caught speeding at 128 mph in a 45 mph zone Monday in North Carolina, is the car he is bringing. In four career starts, this car hasn't had a top-five finish. Despite the car, I still feel all the notes from last week should make him run well Sunday.

Edwards has a little bit of history on his side by winning the All-Star race because we’ve seen a few drivers do the double recently winning back-to-back weeks in Charlotte. Kurt Busch did it last season, Kasey Kahne in 2008 and Jimmie Johnson as well in 2003. He'll be bringing a brand new car this week as he looks for his first career points win at Charlotte. In 12 career starts, Edwards has four top-five finishes with a 13.3 average finish.

Jeff Gordon is one of the few drivers who will be bringing his All-Star car to the Coca-Cola this week and could be a wild card at 16/1 odds. His team feels pretty confident about what they learned from that race with all the varied temperature changes. The Coca-Cola 600 starts in daylight, runs through dusk and finishes in the cool night. Whoever adjusts the quickest to all three varied climates will have an edge. Gordon is a five time winner at Charlotte with the last coming in 2007. The track is also the site of his first Cup win back in 1994.

Clint Bowyer is a great selection at 20/1 just because of the car he's bringing, the same one that was runner-up to Kenseth at Texas. Bowyer's best Charlotte finish was runner-up in the fall 2007 race.

Texas is a prominent track to refer to for this race because it was the last 1.5-mile high banked track run on other than last weeks All-Star event. Texas runs the closest to Charlotte and also has similarities with Atlanta and Las Vegas.

Because we can use Las Vegas as a reference as well, Tony Stewart becomes someone to pay attention to. Stewart led a race high 163 laps at Las Vegas and virtually gave the race away to Edwards late. Stewart's lone win at Charlotte came in 2003. That race was also his last top-five finish on the track.

Top 5 Coca-Cola Finish Prediction:

1) #17 Matt Kenseth (12/1)
2) #18 Kyle Busch (6/1)
3) #99 Carl Edwards (6/1)
4) #33 Clint Bowyer (20/1)
5) #14 Tony Stewart (12/1)

As for the race in Monaco, I’ll go out on a limb and take Sebastian Vettel laying the minus-120 to win. He’s already won four of the five races this season.

  
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