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De Villiers, Miller in close battle for Dakar triumph

VOLKSWAGEN teammates Giniel De Villiers and Mark Miller cruised through the penultimate stage together on Friday to guarantee they finish with the top two placings in the Dakar Rally.

De Villiers and Miller, the overall leaders, finished only 15 seconds apart in a fast 13th stage that wound across hills between La Rioja and Cordoba, part of the world rally championship. Torrential rain made some of the initial route impassable, and organizers slashed it by more than half from 545 kilometers to 220km.

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 start to allow teammate Dieter Depping of Germany to join them in a convoy.

"I think we can call this a team stage," said De Villiers. "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."

South Africa's De Villiers led the American Miller by 2 minutes, 20 seconds overall. NASCAR star Robby Gordon of the United States remained third, almost 90 minutes behind.

De Villiers or Miller will win his first Dakar 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 NASCAR truck driver, 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 but Nani Roma of Spain won it in a 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 slightly wary of the next long, 227 kilometers stage across the flat and wind-swept pampas.

"That's a lot (of kilometers) 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.


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