Nothing but blue skies and NASCAR over Las Vegas


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A tale from The Best of Vegas (April 1, 2004) brings two iconic Vegas figures into play:

Vegas Vic is the neon cowboy on top of the Pioneer on Fremont Street. His original “howdy, pardner!” voice belonged to Bud Weil, a local government employee.

His last voice was that of Dexter Smith, one of the Pioneer Club’s long line of publicists.

Actually, old-timers recall Vegas Vic didn’t say Howdy, pardner!  His machinery made it sound like “Howdy, Poh-Nuh!”.

Columnist Herb Caen once suggested that Vic ought to say, “Howdy, sucker!”

On a hot summer’s night in 1966, when the stars of the movie The Professionals had finished shooting some scenes at Valley of Fire, they  were trying to get some sleep in their 16th floor room of the Mint.

The movie featured Lee Marvin, Robert Ryan, Burt Lancaster, Jack Palance, Lee Marvin  Ralph Bellamy, Woody Strode, and Claudia Cardinale. A Few of the actors were quite drunk and as it turned out they resented hearing “Howdy Poh-Nah!” every 30 seconds… all night long.

So the men in The Professionals unprofessionally sent a few barrages of steel-tipped arrows  and bullets in Vic’s direction (many of the rumors state it was Lee Marvin alone sending the arrows at Vic with a bow he got from the Props Department).

City Commissioners decided some noise abatement was necessary to prevent future violence toward neon structures, so they shut Vic up.

His voice was stilled, but Vic’s arm kept waving through a succession of owners until the early 1990’s, when the arm just stopped. You can visit Vic and his gal Vickie under the flashing lights of the Fremont Street Experience. If you look really close, you can see a few wayward holes in his plastic sides.

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Vegas Vickie.

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When the Fremont Street Experience was under construction in 1994, several feet were cut off of the brim of Vegas Vic’s hat to make him fit properly under the curve of the canopy of the Fremont Street Experience.

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Like a somewhat battered Vegas Vic, hometown boy Kyle Busch comes back to Las Vegas with his No. 18 Gibbs Racing Toyota team to race in the Nationwide Sam’s Town 300 and then the Sprint Cup Shelby American 500 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Enthusiasm –  the demon of his “Rowdy” reputation for reckless driving – got the better of him in when he raced last year’s Sam’s Town 300, and he wrecked early in the going. But it was the maturer Kyle who raced the Shelby 427 on the next day, starting from the back of the field after winning the pole – he’d blown his engine in practice – to take the checkered flag the way Smith Barney used to make our money — he earned it, patiently and steadily working a less-than-stellar car to the front of the pack, taking the lead with 57 laps to go. He lost it on the last round of pit stops, was third on a restart with 22 laps to go, and then passed leaders Jeff Burton and Clint Boywer to claim his final place in the front. As he did so, his spotter Jeff Dickerson radioed the verdict of Lady Luck: “Say good night, Gracie.” (It was a saying from a different age, and  Busch reportedly didn’t understand what Dickerson meant). Celebrating with some thick burnouts on the grass, he apparently blew his own engine, emerged from the smoke like Criss Angel in an M&Ms suit, took a bow to the crowd and then, taking the checkered flag, kneeled to kiss the finish line.

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In 2009, Kyle Busch celebrated his first win at LMS.

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The win on the third race of the season seemed like the affirmation that Kyle Busch was on his way as a legitimate Sprint Cup championship. But that was far from the case as Busch faltered in the 2009 season; racing in all three of NASCAR’s series, he racked up more wins than any other driver (12), but only won four in Sprint Cup competition and ended up 13th in the Chase behind Brian Vickers. He won the Nationwide Series championship with 15 races he either finished first or second.

Kyle Busch returns to Las Vegas with his ambitions intact – he wants to best “King” Richard Petty’s record of 200 wins by accumulating them between the three racing series – occasionally racing in all three series in one weekend – yet he does so with his former “Rowdy” image at bit faded, perhaps for better, perhaps for ill. During the off-season he became a team owner with the formation of Kyle Busch Motorsports, fielding two teams in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series–the #18 Toyota Tundra, driven by Busch part time, with the remainder of races being driven by Brian Ickler, and the #56 Toyota Tundra, driven by Tayler Malsam.  And then on Feb. 4, during a disappointing Speedweeks in Daytona where he failed to win any of the competitions, Busch proposed to his girlfriend of almost three years, Samantha Sarcinella.

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Samantha Sarcinella with fiancée Kyle Bush. Like the pairing of his brother Kurt with Eva, you gotta believe it’s got something to do with  money.

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Busch captured his first win of the season at the Nationwide race in Fontana last week, narrowly beating Greg Biffle at the finish line, so his Nationwide run seems well underway; but he finished 14th at both Daytona and Fontana in the Sprint Cup races.

Joe Gibbs Racing has a formidable field of drivers this year between Busch, Joey Logano (who finished 5th at the Auto Club 500) and Denny Hamlin, but the Chevrolets of Hendrick Motorsports’ Jimmie Johnson and Mark Martin, who finished 1-2 in Sprint Cup competition last year, are still the cars to beat, and Earnhardt-Ganassi seem in the early going to be putting the fastest cars on the track, with Jamie McMurray and Kevin Harvick racing the hell out of every track they’ve been on this year.

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Watch out for this boy with his crazy-fast Chevvy.

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So gold has faded some from kid wonder Kyle Busch as he grows up and other kids challenge from the rear, like hard-charging, press-friendly (his demeanor on and off the track at least provides reporters with a loads of hot copy) Brad Keselowki.

And the Toyotas of Gibbs Racing which so frequently overtook Amercian brands Chevvy and Ford and Dodge on the field in the past are still tough but gleam less, what with all the bad publicity of late for Toytota. (Over-acceleration, not especially a trackside concern, has cropped up in scores of consumer models of the giant automaker, emblematic of Toyata’s ambition to overtake General Motors as the world’s leading manufacturer of cars.)

Quite a clash of cultures when Japanese formality met up with hardball Washington as the Akio Toyota, CEO of the Toyota empire, on Wednesday apologized before a House committee investigating deadly flaws that sparked the recall of 8.5 million cars. “We pursued growth over the speed at which we were able to develop our people and our organization,” Toyoda said in his prepared testimony. “I regret that this has resulted in the safety issues described in the recalls we face today, and I am deeply sorry for any accidents that Toyota drivers have experienced.” Such an apology wasn’t enough for a panel of lawmakers on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee in a year in which every one faces re-election.

space A recent editorial cartoon by Stockcartoonist Mike Smith. You can read a profile on him at NASCAR This Week here.

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Rep. Edolphus Towns (D., N.Y.), chairman of the oversight committee, issued a statement Wednesday blasting both the auto maker and federal vehicle safety regulators for failing to respond sooner to reports of sudden acceleration. Mr. Towns said NHTSA received reports of 900 such cases involving Toyota vehicles and “did very little about it.”

“NHTSA failed the taxpayers, and Toyota failed their customers,” Mr Towns said. “Thousands of complaints, multiple investigations and serial recalls are bad enough. But we now have 39 deaths attributed to sudden acceleration in Toyotas. To give that horrifying number some perspective, there were 27 deaths attributed to the famous Pinto exploding gas tank of the 1970s.”

Call it hubris or the stain of trying to manufacture a Japanes car in Arkansas, but Toyota’s current bad luck seems to be affecting Kyle Busch in his Sprint Cup aspirations—bad luck or overwe’ening ambition, or both. Kyle can race the panties off a Nationwide Race, but gaming for Gracie’s charms in the premier league seems another matter.

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Maybe a second consecutive win at Las Vegas set things back on course for Kyle Bush. But then, Las Vegas—call the City Bountiful of Bootyful Vegas Vickie, if you will–herself has remained on a run of bad luck that has gone on for several years. Nevada has lead the nation in foreclosures for three years in a row now, with 112,097 foreclosure filings in 2009, up 44 percent from 2008 and a 226 percent gain over 2007. In Las Vegas, home prices have fallen 50 percent from their peak, and one in four homeowners are now underwater on their loans—about as the worst in the country. More than 10 percent of Nevada’s homes received at least one foreclosure filing in 2009.

Gaming in Las Vegas is suffering its worst recession, with revenues down 10 percent in 2009 and 15 percent in 2008. The state as a whole suffered its worst single-year decline in 2009, falling 10.4 percent.

Not surprisingly stock values of casino companies have continued their plunge. For fiscal year 2009, Nevada casinos posted a loss of $6.7 billion among the 260 major casinos in Nevada. (However, as the Las Vegas Sun reported on Feb. 19, “The only bright spot, from a financial standpoint, was that people drank more. Sales of booze rose by 2.5 percent while revenue tied to casinos, rooms and food dropped. But 36 percent were recorded as “comp” drinks.”)

Gone is that sort of “confidence of a Christian with four aces” (Mark Twain), replaced by the tissuey braggadocio of the veteran Vegas gambler who mutters, “I hope to break even this week. I need the money.”

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Kyle Busch is not alone. In the NASCAR dreams of so many Sprint Cup drivers this year, desperation for wins is replacing the sort of calm which knows that a top-five finish trumps snake-eye’d gunning every time. Juan Pablo Montoya is desperate for a win. So is Greg Biffle, who has raced so hard this year but hasn’t seen a win since the end of the 2008 season, when he got two in a row. Jeff Burton, who finished third at Fontana last week, who had early success in 2009 and then nada, and has two wins as LMS already, could sure use a third. Kasey Kahne and Ryan Newman, who have both suffered terrible starts to the 2010 season, could sure use a win. And Kurt Busch, Las Vegas’ other hometown son, is desperate for a win on the local track his kid brother won the previous year. I expect the Snickers No. 18 and the Blue Duece to show more than a little rivalry as they negotiate the strangest 1.5-mile, “cookie-cutter” track on the circuit, with the recently-added progressive banking that gets steeper as a driver gets closer to the outside retaining wall.

All of these guys set their sights on the spectral babe 267 lascivious laps from the green flag like Vegas Vic charming Vegas Vickie on a barstool next to him, each like the dignified, banker-type fella who bends over the slot to whisper as he pours in all those coins meant for nobler ends in life, “Talk to me baby, I know you understand my needs.”

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In Nevada, Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada has linked his state’s 13 percent unemployment—the highest in the country–with a sharp increase in domestic violence. “I met with some people while I was home dealing with domestic abuse. It has gotten out of hand. Why? Men don’t have jobs. Women don’t have jobs either, but women aren’t abusive, most of the time,” he continued. “Men, when they’re out of work, tend to become abusive. Our domestic crisis shelters in Nevada are jammed.”

In good ole, polarized, combative Washington, Reid has taken heavy flack from conservatives for his comments. One website gunning for Reid’s outster from public office labeled him a “future wife abuser.” But Reid’s claims have been largely substantiated by domestic abuse support groups.

Atlantic Magazine reports,

Last March, the National Domestic Violence Hotline received almost half again as many calls a it had one year before. A 2004 National Institute of Justice study found that men who experience unemployment are more likely to engage in arguments with intimate partners that end in violence than men who are employed, and that the impact of unemployment is particularly acute in disadvantaged communities with thin social ties, where 15.6 percent of couples with men experiencing unstable employment have violent altercations. And here in Florida, where the umemployment rate is up past 10 percent and men have taken the hardest hit, domestic homicides in 2009 were double the previous year.

Vegas Vic, an ikon of past Vegas glory whose gamblin’ hand hasn’t moved in almost 30 years, seems now to be itchin’ to bitch-slap his Vickie.

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Or goose the President. Obama infuriated the mayor of Las Vegas recently when the Presidentt likened the federal government’s need for fiscal prudence with avoiding profligate spending in Vegas. “You don’t blow a bunch of cash on Vegas when you’re trying to save for college,” the President said. “You prioritize. You make tough choices. It’s time your government did the same.”

Mayor Oscar Goodman not only skipped the airport when Obama arrived for a visit to Las Vegas last week, he also turned down a White House invitation to personally meet with Obama. Goodman–a former lawyer for mob and surely one of the staunchest defenders of Las Vegas’ old-whore glory–said, “The president had a real psychological hang-up about the entertainment capital of the world,” Goodman said. “He didn’t learn his lesson the first time. But when he hurt our economy by his ill-conceived rhetoric, we didn’t think it would happen again,” he said, calling the president “a real slow learner.”

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Mayor Goodman with some of the base.

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He added, “I have told some folks who have asked under what terms I would meet and I said, ‘If he calls me and indicates he will rectify the situation,'” the mayor said at his weekly news conference Thursday afternoon, “and buys me a martini, then I would certainly honor that request.”

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Yes, a martini. Someone’s gotta defend Vegas Vicky’s somewhat looped honor. Someone’s gotta stand up for ole, compulsive, the-rules-are-different-here Las Vegas. Maybe it’s the recession, or maybe times have simply been a-changing, but there’s something quaint and retro about the permissivieness of casino gambling, comp drinks and legal hookers. Someone’s gotta make the case for the easiest fix for broken dreams.

Voices in defense of Vicky’s deep-cleavage honor seem to be thinning out even in Las Vegas. Working folk are leaving town in search of employment elsewhere. Corporate image has largely replaced the smoky musk of days gone by with a perky, disinfected, suburban, brand-conscious cachet.

Stacy J. Willis of the Las Vegas Weekly recently wrote of this in her essay, “Somewhere along the way, did risk-taking Nevada lose its edge?”:

If a girl wants to smoke a little weed and hook up with a taxpaying brothel professional before marrying her lesbian lover, then wake up the next day and change her mind about the marriage, get a divorce, drop a few thousand in a Noah’s Ark slot machine and stay up all night drinking Belvedere flirtinis in front of an aquarium watching a mermaid, shouldn’t she be able to do that in Nevada? Wild West, cutting-edge-of-social-chutzpah Nevada?

… Now that we’re foundering in the Great Recession, groping for pennies and crying about the president’s “insults,” it seems a splendid time to consider whether that brazen attitude is worth snatching back. Rather than having our mob-defending, gin-sponsoring mayor begging for an apology from President Barack Obama for characterizing Vegas visits as a reckless decision — (“When times are tough … you don’t blow a bunch of cash on Vegas when you’re trying to save for college …”) — wouldn’t it be more in character for Nevadans to stand by the irreverent character that made the place beloved by not giving a damn what the president preaches?

“In the past when we were in the economic downturn like the 1930s, we took these steps,”(former state archivist Guy) Rocha says. “By making these things legal that were not legal before, we built an economy. We were willing to run against the social grain of the nation.”

Now, not so much. While drinking and gambling and quickie marriages are still beacons, they’re not the socially unconventional sirens of sin they once were. Gambling is pervasive, drinking ubiquitous, marriage and divorce ridiculously depreciated. By today’s standards, issues that challenge social convention are not so welcome in Nevada, such as gay marriage or marijuana intake. Or a statewide legalization of prostitution.

… And so here we are, in our poverty-stricken adolescence, being pushed and pulled by a variety of influences at a time when identity may be key to our economic survival. Will Nevada recall its brief flirtation with a family-friendly image, or dig deeper to its social edge, or come up with a mature compromise that makes the outlaw state blend in with the other 49 in some economically survivable way?

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Even though he’s largely unemployed and at times can’t stand her tarnished, retro image, Vegas Vickie still stands by her man Vic. But in the long marriage of money with free-fallin’, it takes a more lot of effort to keep things exciting.

Let’s see: there are the big runs at the baccarat tables by those Asian crime-syndicate gamblers. In December, a select group of players wagered $1.3 billion on baccarat games (the historic table of choice of high-rollers) at 17 properties – a record for any single month in state history. Strip casinos won $155.7 million back from the players. Good money for the Strip, but still that leaves an incredible take for the gamblers. That’s gotta pour octane on the burning compulsions of millions of Vegas dreamers out there in the cold cold American hinterland.

Cirque de Soliel launched Viva Elvis last week, its seventh permanent Vegas show. The show cost Cirque $50 million to pull together (not including the $180 million for building the theater) and opened at CityCenter, the new $8.5-billion “resort of the future.”  And for all of Cirque’s reputation for daring, Viva Elvis is among the most traditional fare on the Strip, with big dance numbers, showgirls galore, and at the end, a stage packed with male and female, short and tall, jump-suited Evlisses. (Elvae?) With entertainment depressed on the Strip, sure bets are few, but how can you go wrong with Elvis in Vegas?

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A scene from “Viva Elvis,” Cirque de Soliel’s latest Vegas extravaganza,

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Out at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, do believe that the promoters of the Shelby American will be toting the usual six-shooters of Vegas chutzpah and blowing on everyone’s dice with the hot breath of Vickie. This is a big-money event for the town, expected to draw some 300,000 into Vegas, create some 3,000 jobs and bring in an expected $150 million dollars.

Some of the generous overpouring include:

– Tickets have been discounted for as low as $49—the lowest ever—and payment plans for packages have been introduced, with buyers only having to cough up a third of the cost up front and paying for the rest in installments. Many hotels have dropped room rates by as much as 25 percent for the race weekend. In addition, many hotels are offering promotions such as free hats, free cocktail hours, discounted food options and gifts for kids.

– Last night, the popular NASCAR Hauler Parade once again thundered down the Las Vegas Strip to kick off NASCAR Weekend in Las Vegas. Sixty of the brightly-colored, number-and-sponsor-festooned 18-wheelers that carry NASCAR Sprint Cup Series and NASCAR Nationwide Series race cars and equipment paraded north on Las Vegas Boulevard for five miles, up to Sahara Avenue before returning to Interstate 15 and the short ride north to the speedway, cheered on by race fans lined up on the Boulevard and from the windows of all the properties facing the street.

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Tbe Logano Express rolls through downtown Vegas. (photo: Las Vegas Sun)

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– As ever other town and track featuring a Nationwide race has done so this year, Vegas is betting that Danica Patrick will provide the  Sam’s Town 300 on Saturday with some much-needed lucky sevens–even if the Great Chick Hope of NASCAR isn’t expected herself to do so well. Drumming uip the hype, LMS is offering $10,010 to a lucky fan (drawn from all entries submitted at the track’s website) if Danica makes a top-10 finish.  No doubt there will be many fans in the stands shouting, “Danica Win Ten Ten!” at the No. 7 GoDaddy.com Chevrolet, but odds-makers favor Kyle Busch 6-5 chances for the win, and give Patrick’s the worst odds of all at 75-1. It’s her last chance to make a splash in NASCAR’s parts for a while; after the Sam’s Town 300, Danica returns to IndyCar racing and won’t have another Nationwide appearance until June.

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Danica and Dale. Is racin’s Vegas Vicky being ungrateful to her Vic?

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(A late-breaking story from The National Enquirer—a tabloid as earnest for the trashy side of truth as Fox News is for fair and balanced Democrat-bashing) is that Dale Earnhardt Jr. is incensed with Danica for her “trash-talking” Dale, saying behind his back that she will one day be a better NASCAR driver than him. Vegas Vick, put up your dukes! Vickie’s got a catsuit on!)

– Reality-show ooh-lah-lah booty queen Kim Kardashian wil share Grand Marshall duties with automobile star Carroll Shelby. The perfect pairing of sexy girls and cars will mutually make the call over the microphone for the gentlemen to start their engines. (Indeed). Kardashian has special interests in this particular event: Tommy Baldwin Racing’s #36 Chevy, driven by Mike Bliss, will feature a special paint scheme celebrating the launch of her new fragrance. “But I’m really looking forward to meeting all the drivers,” she says. Shelby has raced and designed cars for more than 50 years and is known throughout the world for his legendary Cobra and Shelby GT350. His company, Shelby Automobiles, Inc. is headquartered in Las Vegas and also is the sponsor of Sunday’s Sprint Cup Series race.

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Booty and the Bestial Carmaker: co-Grand Marshalls Kim Kardashian and Shelby auto founder and race sponsor Caroll Shelby will rev the boys up.

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– Planet Hollywood Resorts & Casino Las Vegas has placed stickers on cars of Front Row Motorsports with Yates Racing with associate sponsorships on Travis Kvapil’s #34 and David Gilliland’s #38 Ford Fusions. In addition to the Kardashian perfume sponsorship on the #36 Chevy driven by Mike Bliss, Tommy Baldwin Racing has partnered with the Stratosphere Hotel & Casino to support “Scale the Strat,” a 1,455-step stair-climbing event to raise funds to prevent lung disease and promote lung health.

– Las Vegas headliner Terry Fator will sing the national anthem for the start of the Shelby American. Fator, known throughout the world for his celebrity singing impressions and ventriloquism, won the second season of NBC-TV’s America’s Got Talent and currently performs at The Mirage Resort & Casino in Las Vegas.

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Terry Fator and one his many better halves.

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So it’s all chips out this weekend at LMS—my God, how the gambling clichés are crowing from the bleachers of my brain—but who will Lady Luck bestow her scented undies onto, those lacy pink-satin unmentionables drifting down from heaven to crown the winner as he emerges from his car in Victory Lane? Will it be hometown boy Kyle Bush, Vickie’s lighting jolting Kyle for second time in two years? Or will he get beat by his brother Kurt, the Blue Booze Duece trumping the junior Busch’s 18 M&Ms? Will Tony Stewart have his first win at LMS, one of only three tracks on the current circuit where he hasn’t won yet? Or will Kevin Harvick cross to the other side of the stylishly trimmed and tinted maidenhair of victory and edge out the field at last?

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Roll them sevens, Tony!

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Or will it be Jimmie Johnson, whose luck has gone both ways in the first two races of the season? The No. 48 Lowe’s Chevy was apparently the only car to hit the Pothole from Hell at the Daytona 500, causing a punctured tire which later may have contributed to a broken rear axle with 15 laps to go, resulting in a 31st-place finish. The next week at the Auto Club 500 Vickie’s frown over Johnson uplifted to a smile, as he did a green-flag pit moments before the final caution. Vickie handed him the lead when everyone else pitted under caution and he was able to hold off a late charge by Harvick, who got as close as Johnson’s rear bumper but ending up making an unlucky scrape with the wall and fell back, giving Johnson the win.

“We got a really nice gift with the way things worked out,’’ Johnson said afterward. “Then it was kind of up to me to hang on to it.’’

From his perspective, Kevin Harvick, who had perhaps the fastest car on the track but the lesser luck, Johnson’s gift was actually “a golden horseshoe stuck up (his) ass.”

Harvick’s comment obviously delighted the Vegas oddsmakers. Put your chips on Johnson, says Fred Crespi, Director of Race and Sports for The Palms Casino Resort in Las Vegas. He gives the odds for top-5 victory on Sunday as follows:

  • Jimmie Johnson – 4/1
  • Mark Martin – 13/2
  • Kyle Busch – 7/1
  • Jeff Gordon – 9/1
  • Denny Hamlin – 10/1

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Not-so-lucky Harvick was place in a pack of five drivers with 14/1 odds.

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Now, I don’t think someone can win four consecutive Sprint Cup championships on luck alone, though the number and consecutiveness of the feat may itself be lucky and un-repeatable. Odds are odds, but no one is unbeatable, and no one truly beats Vicky at her game.

Just ask Washington businessman Christian Peterson, who was recently arraigned on charges of theft and fraud in relation to $3.75 million in markers at Ceasars Palace and the Hard Rock Hotel two Vegas casinos which were covered checks that bounced. The guy obviously got hammered by his own dream of winning big and how. But get this: Peterson has sued Harrah’s Entertainment, which provided a jet to fly Peterson to Vegas and back, saying that Harrah’s did so knowing Peterson’s gambling problem and connived to force him to sign for the outstanding markers. Only in Vegas, where the rules are different than the rest of the leisure capitals of the word, can someone even bet on the difference.

But Vegas will be Vegas, and viva la difference, I say, for better and worse. The legendary three-card monte dealer Canada Bill Jones once said: “Suckers have no business with money anyway.” And Jimmie Johnson is no sucker; he keeps his relations with Vickie at a Vick’s-arm’s-length. He’s cool and calculated on the track and hedging his bets by fielding the best damn car. “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity,” Seneca wrote, and Team 48’s philosophy is to field the best car possible and then let Superman find his window in the space between Vegas’s Vicky’s left boot and the dark-upskirt-spaces revealed by her right boot resting over her left knee.

Viva Vick and Vicky, I say, roll the dice and let ‘er rip.

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