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South African poised for Dakar finale

1/16/2009

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina -- Giniel de Villiers of South Africa leads Volkswagen teammate Mark Miller of the United States by just over two minutes heading into the last stage of the Dakar Rally.

The teammates cruised through the next to last stage together on Friday to protect their positions atop the overall standings.

They finished 15 seconds apart in a fast 13th stage won by Nani Roma of Spain. Torrential rain made some of the initial route across hills between La Rioja and Cordoba impassable, and organizers slashed the leg from 339 miles to 137 miles.

Rattled by the crash and exit of rally and team leader Carlos Sainz on Thursday, de Villiers and Miller pulled over on team orders soon after the stage began to allow teammate Dieter Depping of Germany to join them in a convoy.

"I think we can call this a team stage," de Villiers said. "The most important (point) is to reach the finish, particularly after losing a car yesterday. It's important for Volkswagen to finish the Dakar in first and second places. We don't want to take any chances anymore."

De Villiers led Miller by 2 minutes, 20 seconds overall. NASCAR star Robby Gordon of the United States remained third in his Hummer, almost 90 minutes behind.

Either de Villiers or Miller is likely win his first Dakar on Saturday when the rally ends where it began, in Buenos Aires.

De Villiers has had four top-10 finishes in the Dakar, including runner-up in 2006. He was leading in 2007 when his engine broke midway through the race. Miller, a former driver in NASCAR's truck series, was fourth in 2007. Volkswagen hasn't won the Dakar since the second rally in 1980.

While the Volkswagens took a safety-first approach, Gordon took the stage lead then suffered mechanical problems. Guerlain Chicherit of France took over for a time before relinquishing the lead to Roma's Mitsubishi. Krzysztof Holowczyc of Poland was second, more than seven minutes back, and Chicherit third.

Depping was fourth, Miller seventh and de Villiers eighth.

Marc Coma of Spain was set to win his second motorbike title in three years, holding onto a lead of nearly 90 minutes on defending champion Cyril Despres of France.

Despres won successive stages and his fourth this year, but Coma was only 1:45 behind. David Fretigne of France was third in the stage and overall.

"There was not a lot of grip so we had to stand on the bike all the time," Coma said. "It was very demanding physically but very entertaining in the final part."

He was wary of Saturday's long, final stage, 141 miles across the flat and wind-swept pampas.

"That's a lot (of miles) and a lot can happen, too," Coma said.

Meanwhile, doctors treating Spanish biker Cristobal Guerrero, who suffered serious injuries after a fall in the Atacama Desert in Chile on Tuesday, were waiting for final approval from rally officials to transfer him to Santiago for additional tests.

Doctor Oscar Lutz, the director of the Copiapo Regional Hospital, told The Associated Press that Guerrero remained in serious condition in an induced coma, but that his vital signs were stable.