Dakar: Rafal Sonik (quads), Eduard Nikolaev (trucks) still leading the way

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Rafal Sonik is really booming now.

The Polish quad racer bagged his second consecutive Dakar stage win on Thursday by a resounding margin of almost 11 minutes over defending champ Ignacio Casale.

As you’d figure, that put on a big chunk for Sonik’s overall lead, which now stands at 24 minutes, 23 seconds over the Chilean.

Sonik pulled away noticeably through the latter way points of the stage from Copiapo to Antofagasta, Chile. In the final two of 10 way points, Sonik stretched his lead to more than five minutes at WP9 and to under nine minutes at WP10 before extending it further to the finish.

Casale tried to look ahead after Thursday’s run.

“It was a hard stage, but I knew that,” Casale said. “There were a lot of rocks and fesh-fesh, very bumpy. The level of competition in the quad category is very good. There are four or five riders who are really close together.

“Last year, I rode two great marathon stages. Until now, it hasn’t gone as well as it could have, but there will be better days…”

Uruguay’s Sergio Lafuente maintains third overall (+ 26:20) behind Sonik and Casale after a fourth-place finish in the stage.

Another repeat winner came through in the truck category as well.

KAMAZ’s Eduard Nikolaev and Andrey Karginov were pretty much even with each other through the middle waypoints, but Nikolaev proved unbeatable and went on to win his second consecutive stage by 10 minutes over teammate Ayrat Mardeev.

MAN’s Siarhei Viazovich completed the stage podium, finishing 16 minutes behind Nikolaev. As for Karginov, difficulties in the second half of the stage knocked him down to sixth.

Overall, Nikolaev is up eight minutes, one second over Mardeev, while another MAN pilot, Ales Loprais, has taken third position (+27:28) by just eight seconds over Karginov, the defending Dakar truck champ.

NBCSN’s coverage of the Dakar Rally continues Friday at 4 p.m. ET.

Helio Castroneves ‘hustling’ for IndyCar, IMSA rides; talking with four to five teams

Helio Castroneves IMSA IndyCar
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As his season gathers steam, Helio Castroneves said his prospects for finding new rides for 2021 in IMSA and IndyCar also are gaining momentum.

The three-time Indianapolis 500 winner said Monday he is optimistic about landing in either or perhaps a combination of both series when Team Penske and Acura end their DPi partnership after this season.

“A lot of people I spoke with, four to five teams, are interested,” Castroneves said. “Whether it’s doing Indy 500 only, whether it’s pushing to do full time or do the sports cars as well. It’s been a very nice conversation.

LOOKING AHEADTeam Penske drivers seeking new rides for 2021

“I have a lot of respect for all the teams that have been talking, and I feel the same feedback. We just have to wait for their (sponsor) connections, and I’m also looking for some connections on my side as well, so hopefully we’ll be able to put this together and get something very soon.”

Given two decades of success with Penske in IndyCar and IMSA, Castroneves’ resume hardly needs burnishing. But the Brazilian has combined with co-driver Ricky Taylor in the No. 7 Acura DPi to win the past two overall victories at Road America and Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta.

But Castroneves, who doesn’t have a manager, said he has been working the phones hard rather than wait for the strong results to bring in the calls.

“At this point, I feel like I’m the one who needs to be talking to them because people need to know I want to continue racing and understand my desire,” Castroneves, 45, said. “There is opportunity, no question, in both (IndyCar and IMSA), which I’m really happy about it. However, because of the COVID-19, a lot of things sometimes have to be a little delayed. But I’m excited. Whatever the opportunity and whatever destiny guides me, whether IndyCar or sports cars, trust me I’ll be as happy as it could be and doing my 100 percent like I always did.

“It’s like politics, you need to be out there, good news or bad news. People have to make notice of your presence. I’m hustling. I want to continue to keep it going. Hopefully, we’ll have good news very soon.”

The news has been all good lately on track for Castroneves and Taylor, who hope to continue their run Sunday at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

The No. 6 duo has surged to sixth in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship standings, 10 points out of the lead with four races remaining. After thinking there was “no hope” to be competitive after opening the season with three consecutive poor finishes, Taylor now sees an opportunity for a happy ending.

“With the program going away, Helio has won all the big races and given so much back to the team and left such a mark, he’s really part of Penske history,” Taylor said. “For me, it’s been an opportunity of a lifetime to be a part of it. I’d like to leave my little mark as well. Helio has won everything except for a championship.

“Obviously, we’ve won races already together, but we can win a championship now. I think if both of us can do that together and both win our first championship for ‘The Captain,’ that would be an absolute dream come true, and we can tie a bow on it and be happy.”