This is it: 400 miles to a Sprint Cup championship

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Every time a NASCAR season begins in earnest with those “Preseason Thunder” test sessions at Daytona, the end of the line in November – the Championship Weekend at Homestead-Miami – seems so far away.

But here we are again, ready to see the coronation of another Sprint Cup champion while simultaneously wondering how in the blue heck time went by so fast.

Today is the day. Only 400 miles separate either Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth or Kevin Harvick from the Cup, and while Johnson has the distinct advantage of being on top of the championship by 28 points going into today’s race, so much can happen as it plays out. Nothing’s impossible.

Improbable? Maybe. Unlikely? Perhaps. But never impossible.

For Johnson, today could be a day for more history, a day to further bolster his legacy as one of the all-time legends of the sport. He’s never won at Homestead, but when he’s hit the 1.5-mile oval with the championship lead, he’s always been able to take care of business. Four times he’s walked in as the leader, and four times he’s walked out as the champion.

One of these days, we’ll look back on his and Hendrick Motorsports’ run of dominance and be glad that we were there to see something that memorable.

Then there’s Kenseth, whose career has come back to life in a big way with Joe Gibbs Racing this year. Win or lose today, he and the No. 20 bunch can be very proud of their accomplishments in 2013.

But should Johnson come undone somehow, he could be in position to deliver one of the most shocking upsets in NASCAR history and earn his second Cup title (and his first in the current Chase format that many believed he helped create after claiming his first title in 2003).

Finally, there’s Harvick, who today closes out a memorable run at Richard Childress Racing that saw him and the team go through several tough times. 13 years after taking up the incredible challenge of replacing the late Dale Earnhardt, Harvick has become part of NASCAR’s nucleus.

He and his No. 29 team have kept things light in regards to the championship, having mentioned that their only chance to beat Johnson is to lock him in a port-a-potty. But as long as they’re still in it, they’ll give it their best shot. It’s what they demand of themselves, every week.

What will we see today? Five-Time getting the Six-Pack? Kenseth claiming his inaugural “Chase era” crown? Or Harvick giving RCR a title on his way out the door? Regardless of the outcome, we’ll bear witness to something pretty special.

In the dead of winter, you never think about this day in November. And then, suddenly, as if only a few moments had passed instead of ten months, the day arrives.

And you just shake your head and smile.

Dakar Rally Stage 13: Carlos Sainz has second overall victory in sight

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Editor’s note: Check out expanded video highlights of Stage 13 Saturday at 6:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

Carlos Sainz is nearing his second Dakar Rally victory while Nasser Al-Attiyah strengthened his bid for second by winning Friday’s 13th stage of the endurance race.

Sainz finished sixth in his Team Peugeot ride and holds a lead of 46:18 over Al-Attiyah’s Toyota.

“I tried to play it safe, even if there were plenty of tricky parts,” said Sainz, who won the Dakar Rally in 2010 but had failed to finish the past five races because of mechanical problems. “Since the start, there has been a lot of drama in this race and it’s not over until we’ve crossed the finishing line. It’s not a crazy Dakar, but it’s very difficult. I hope everything will go OK (Saturday).”

Defending race winner Stephane Peterhansel is in fourth overall, trailing by 1:28:08 after crashing and finishing 20th in the penultimate stage. The Frenchman has a record 13 overall wins in the Dakar but is unlikely to earn another despite rebounding well from a crash in the seventh stage that had knocked him from the overall lead.

In other divisions, Eduard Nikolaev (trucks), Matthias Walkner (motorcycles), Ignacio Casale (Quads) and Reinaldo Varela (SxS UTV) are on the cusp of capturing overall wins entering the final stage.

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STAGE 13 RESULTS, CARS

  1. Qatar’s Nasser Al-Attiyah, Toyota, 5:02:22
  2. Argentina’s Lucio ALvarez, Toyota, 5:13:38
  3. South Africa’s Giniel de Villiers, Toyota: 5:15:28
  4. Poland’s Jakub Przygonski, X-Raid, 5:17:29
  5. Finland’s Mikko Hirvonen, X-Raid, 5:21:46

OVERALL 

  1. Spain’s Carlos Sainz
  2. Qatar’s Nasser Al-Attiyah, 46:18 behind
  3. South Africa’s Giniel de Villiers, 1:20:00 behind
  4. France’s Stephane Peterhansel, 1:28:08 behind
  5. Poland’s Jakub Przygonski, 2:46:32 behind

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TRUCKS

  1. Russia’s Eduard Nikolaev, Kamaz, 5:59:02
  2. Russia’s Airat Mardeev, 5:59:52
  3. Czech Republic’s Martin Kolomy, Tatra, 6:05:08
  4. Belarus’s Siarhei Vlazovich, 6:26:47
  5. Czech Republic’s Dmitry Sotnikov, 6:31:56

OVERALL 

  1. Russia’s Eduard Nikolaev
  2. Belarus’s Siarhei Vlazovich, 3:53:59 behind
  3. Russia’s Airat Mardeev, 5:21:05
  4. Czech Republic’s Martin Kolomy, 9:01:18
  5. Czech Republic’s Dmitry Sotnikov, 10:04:29

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MOTORCYCLES

  1. Australia’s Toby Price, KTM, 4:48:33
  2. Argentina’s Kevin Benavides, Honda, 4:50:36
  3. France’s Antoine Meo, KTM, 4:51:17
  4. Austria’s Matthias Walkner, KTM, 5:00:05
  5. Spain’s Juan Pedrero Garcia, 5:03:45

AMERICAN RIDERS

15th: Mark Samuels (Honda), 5:19:40

18th: Shane Esposito (KTM), 5:27:14

37th: Andrew Short (Husqvarna), 5:58:14

68th: Bill Conger (Husqvarna), 7:16:00

OVERALL 

  1. Austria’s Matthias Walkner
  2. Argentina’s Kevin Benavides, 22:31 behind
  3. Australia’s Toby Price, 27:45
  4. France’s Antoine Meo, 50:17
  5. Spain’s Gerard Farres, 1:01:19

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QUADS

  1. Argentina’s Jeremias Gonzalez Ferioli, 5:55:16
  2. Paraguay’s Nelson Augusto Sanabria Galeano, 5:58:34
  3. Chile’s Ignacio Casale, 5:59:19
  4. Argentina’s Nicolas Cavigliasso, 6:02:22
  5. Brazil’s Marcelo Medeiros, 6:02:23

OVERALL

  1. Chile’s Ignacio Casale
  2. Argentina’s Nicolas Cavigliasso, 1:37:16 behind
  3. Argentina’s Jeremias Gonzalez Ferioli, 2:05:12
  4. Brazil’s Marcelo Medeiros, 4:25:26
  5. Peru’s Alexis Hernandez, 4:34:37

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SxS UTV

  1. France’s Patricie Garrouste, Polaris, 6:29:40
  2. Brazil’s Reinaldo Varela, Can-Am, 6:39:39
  3. France’s Claude Fournier, Polaris, 7:33:17
  4. Spain’s Jose Pena Campos, Polaris, 7:41:200

OVERALL 

  1. Brazil’s Reinaldo Varela
  2. France’s Patricie Garroueste, 53:28 behind
  3. France’s Claude Fournier, 10:02:12
  4. Spain’s Jose Pena Campos, 10:06:01

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SATURDAY’S SCHEDULE

Champions in all five classes will be crowned Saturday after the 14th and final stage concludes in Cordoba, Argentina.

MORE: Dakar Rally daily stages schedule, NBCSN broadcast schedule, list of all competitors.

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