Bettors Shift Into Gear For New NASCAR Season



Whatever modifications NASCAR makes to its scoring system - stock car officials still were mulling possible alterations as we went to press - like the drivers themselves, both bet takers and bet makers will have to adjust to those changes when the new season shifts into high gear with the running of the Daytona 500, Feb. 15.

The Greek Sportsbook already has posted future book odds, matchup prices and over/under propositions for the upcoming season.

Some changes already have been announced: Hoping to create more action, NASCAR will switch to stickier tires that wear out more quickly than the current "hard" tires. That should maximize driver skill and lessen the importance of pit stops and fuel economy. And NASCAR's top circuit has a new sponsor, Nextel, which replaces Winston.

As for a new point system, NASCAR wants to tinker with a regimen that currently favors consistency over success. Last year, for example, Matt Kenseth won the 36-race season-long Winston Cup Championship despite capturing only one race. Ryan Newman, who won eight races, finished sixth in the point standings.

Among the two major proposals being debated were a performance-weighted system and a playoff run. The former would operate something like the Indy Racing League (IRL) system where the winner receives 50 points, second 40, third 32, fourth 28, fifth 25, sixth 23. Positions after 10th would decrease by a point. The current NASCAR system employs a sliding scale where first is worth 180 points and 43rd gets 34 points.

The playoff run would use the present points system but, with 10 races to go, the championship pool would be reduced to the top 10 drivers, who all would start from zero.

The challenge for future book bettors is to settle on a driver who is able to adapt to whatever changes are made. Let's look at the leading contenders:

Ryan Newman: Scored more points the second half of the season than any driver. Led the circuit with eight victories and 11 poles.

Jimmie Johnson: The runner-up to Kenseth a year ago, Johnson has been among the top 10 in points for 69 straight weeks, the longest streak among current drivers. Won three times in '03, including a sweep at New Hampshire. Prot�g� of Jeff Gordon.

Jeff Gordon: Led a series-high 1,639 laps last year, 466 more than Newman. Won three races, including two of the last five. Swept at Martinsville. Did not finish five races because of crashes.

Matt Kenseth: Mr. Consistency. Finished in top 10 25 times and failed to complete just two races. Was outside the top 20 only four times all year.

Tony Stewart: The defending 2002 champion won just twice in 2003 and finished seventh in the overall points standings. Stewart often was in contention but was erratic and had half a dozen finishes of 25th or worse.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.: Won just two races last year but one, at Phoenix, gave him his first victory in a non-restrictor plate race since 2001. Finished strong, leading laps in nine of the year's final 11 races.
Kurt Busch: With four victories in 2003, including a sweep at Bristol, Busch proved he can find the winner's circle. He finished 11th in the standings last year but it wouldn't take much improvement for him to threaten for the title this season.

Kevin Harvick: One of only two drivers (along with Terry Labonte) to finish every race. Was ranked in the top 10 for all but three weeks of the season and finished fifth overall. Harvick is immensely talented but hot-tempered.

Bobby Labonte: Ended the year with a victory in Miami, his second of the season, and finished eighth in the overall points standings.

An interesting newcomer to the Nextel mix is Brian Vickers, the Busch Series champion of 2003. Vickers, who is just 20 years old, had three victories, 13 top-five finishes and 21 top-10 efforts on the Busch circuit. He's NASCAR's youngest champion, at any level.

ODDS TO WIN THE 2004 NXTEL CUP CHAMPIONSHIP

Driver Odds     Driver Odds
Ryan Newman 7/2     Dale Jarrett 30/1
Jimmie Johnson 5/1     Mark Martin 30/1
Jeff Gordon 5/1     Sterling Marlin 35/1
Matt Kenseth 6/1     Jamie McMurray 40/1
Tony Stewart 7/1     Greg Biffle 50/1
Dale Earnhardt Jr. 7/1     Brian Vickers 50/1
Kurt Busch 10/1     Rusty Wallace 50/1
Kevin Harvick 12/1     Jeremy Mayfield 50/1
Bobby Labonte 12/1     Michael Waltrip 75/1
Jeff Burton 25/1     Terry Labonte 75/1
FIELD (All others) 25/1