SANTIAGO, Chile -- American Mark Miller captured his first stage win in the Dakar Rally on Wednesday, winning the fifth leg to lead a Volkswagen sweep that gave Carlos Sainz the overall lead.
Miller won the grueling 300-mile run across the Atacama Desert from Copiapo north to Antofagasta, finishing 5 hours, 6 minutes, 15 seconds. Sainz was 2:10 behind and Qatar's Nasser Al-Attiyah was third, 4:27 back.
NASCAR driver Robby Gordon finished fourth in a Hummer, 4:48 off Miller's pace.
Sainz leads Al-Attiyah by 4:37 overall, and Miller is 9:39 off the pace in third.
Miller was jubilant, declaring the real race had just begun as the rally will spend five stages in the Atacama, one of the driest places on Earth.
"I would say it was the perfect day," Miller said. "Today was the first big day of the Dakar. We were aware of it -- all of us. The Dakar really started today and we are in the top positions. Today we stopped playing kiddies. There are still a few long days in the sand dunes."
In motorbikes, defending champion Marc Coma's Sherco blew a rear tire while leading by six minutes, allowing Contardo Lopez to win the stage on an Aprilla in 5:52:40. Cyril Despres' KTM was 1:30 behind, allowing the Frenchman to extend his overall lead to 37:37 on Lopez.
Chile's Lopez attributed part of his victory to racing at home.
"I had had problems in Argentina and now I am really happy to win a stage on home turf," he said. "Now I can think about the overall standings. In Chile all is fine -- even gas is better."
Rally great Stephane Peterhansel, who started the day as overall leader by more than 7½ minutes, stalled twice with mechanical problems and finished more than two hours behind Miller, probably costing him a 10th Dakar title.
Peterhansel broke his BMW's rear axle at 84 miles and it took an hour to fix. He stopped for another half-hour after 134 miles and also got lost, ending up plunging to 10th overall, more than two hours behind Sainz.
"We lost the rally today," the Frenchman said. "We stand no chance of even dreaming about victory ... that is sure."
Sainz, the former two-time world rally champion from Spain who began his Dakar quest in 2006, had minor problems but nothing compared to Peterhansel's nightmare.
"Too bad we had a flat tire," he said. "We changed the wheel and must have lost about two minutes. But I am really happy that we got through this section against the clock that was really long and really tough. Obviously the time lost by Stephane Peterhansel is an advantage for us, but it's only the fifth stage.
"Personally, I intend to keep going at my own pace, the pace I have held since the beginning -- and the pace that is delivering."
The sixth stage on Thursday takes the rally 260 miles farther north from Antofagasta to Iquique.