The 2009 Dakar Rally has not been kind to the favorites in the car class, and Thursday it was overall leader Carlos Sainz, above, who was forced to withdraw. The Volkswagen driver had a 27-minute edge on teammate Mark Miller after Stage 10 and the canceled Stage 11, but made a mistake early in Stage 12 and wound up in a ravine. The accident left his co-driver, Michel Perin, with an arm injury and left Sainz wondering what might have been after dominating this race with six stage wins.
It was a bittersweet day for the Volkswagen team, however. South Africa's Giniel de Villiers took advantage of some driving errors by his American teammate Miller to win the stage and leapfrog into the overall lead. Miller was second on the stage and remains second overall, but only 2 minutes, 35 seconds behind. Things should get interesting as the two VW drivers battle for the title in the rally's final two stages.
NASCAR star Robby Gordon also gained ground at Sainz's expense with a third-place result, despite getting stuck on a bed of rocks and burning out the clutch in his Hummer. Gordon said he could use only first gear for the final 50 miles of the special. Gordon did, however, climb to third overall in the standings after Thursday's effort and put himself in great position to earn an overall podium finish despite being 1:18:52 out of the lead. His next closest rival, Ivar Erik Tollefsen of Norway, is almost six hours back in fourth. Former fourth-place driver Nani Roma, the last real hope for Mitsubishi in this rally, had mechanical problems.
"We are right where we want to be going into the last days of the Rally, so I would not count out Team Dakar USA just yet," Gordon said on his website. "Until Carlos Sainz rolled his race vehicle in a ravine today, he had run a flawless race and everyone would have thought that he had it locked up. It is the Dakar Rally and anything can happen."
In motorbikes, Frenchman Cyril Despres earned another stage win, but gained minimal ground on overall leader Marc Coma, who finished second only 1:23 back. Despres' victory moved him into second overall, but he still must make up almost 90 minutes to beat Spain's Coma in the rally's last two stages.
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