Dakar: A clear run for Rafal Sonik to quads title after Casale, Lafuente withdraw (VIDEO)

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Barring something even more dramatic than what occurred Wednesday in the quads at the 2015 Dakar Rally, Rafal Sonik will be the new champion in the category.

In a stunning turn of events, defending champ Ignacio Casale and Sergio Lafuente – both of whom served as Sonik’s closest pursuers in the overall standings – withdrew from the event in Stage 10 from Calama, Chile to Salta, Argentina.

Casale was fastest early on in Wednesday’s stage, but he sustained a mechanical failure on his vehicle that proved too much for him to overcome. He exits the 2015 Dakar with three stage wins.

Also leaving the fight is Lafuente, who had suffered a rollover a few kilometers before the refueling point on the stage. He reportedly tried to get his vehicle going again, but he’s now out of the event as well.

Sonik himself also had difficulties on Wednesday, including what he described as a “nasty fall” at kilometer 199.

But the Polish rider persevered for a fourth-place finish in the stage, which was won by Paraguay’s Nelson Sanabria in his second triumph of the event (+ 3:40 over Jeremias Gonzalez). And with Casale and Lafuente’s exits, Sonik now holds an overall lead of almost three hours with three stages remaining.

News of Casale’s withdrawal in particular seemed to stun Sonik in the bivouac.

“Ah, I saw he had some problem with his quad, but I didn’t know Casale had withdrawn,” he said. “I saw his chain was broken and, since it’s a marathon stage [where riders cannot get help from their teams], I think that’s why he didn’t try to stay in the race.”

As for his own mishap on Wednesday, Sonik knows it could have been worse.

“It hurts, but my legs are still in one piece and my quad’s fine,” he said. “Yesterday, I had to keep the fuel tank in place because the screws had blown off – I turned the pages in my road book with my left hand, I held the fuse of my alternator in my right hand, and the handlebar in my mouth!

“Repairing all this cost me 40 minutes…But that was yesterday. Today was okay! It’s quite rare to crash at high speeds and emerge unscathed. It happened today, and that’s great.”

Ayrat Mardeev was able to hold teammate Eduard Nikolaev at bay in their ongoing battle at the top of the truck category.

Mardeev was second to Nikolaev in Wednesday’s Stage 10 but minimized the damage to his overall lead by finishing just 49 seconds back. As a result, Mardeev’s edge shrank just slightly to 13 minutes, 21 seconds despite Nikolaev’s sixth stage win of the event.

Nikolaev may be the fastest driver in the trucks but after Mardeev’s clutch drive on Wednesday, that may no longer matter. A lot can happen in three days’ time, but Nikolaev needs Mardeev to falter – and soon.

The title will likely come down to those two drivers now after Andrey Karginov struggled to a 14th place finish on Wednesday and ceded almost 23 minutes. In the overall, he’s still in third position but is now 42:46 off the pace of Mardeev.

Zach Veach splits with Andretti Autosport for rest of IndyCar season

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Zach Veach will be leaving his Andretti Autosport ride with three races remaining in the season, choosing to explore options after the decision was made he wouldn’t return for 2021.

In a Wednesday release, Andretti Autosport said a replacement driver for the No. 26 Dallara-Honda would be named in the coming days. The NTT IndyCar Series will race Oct. 2-3 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course and then conclude the season Oct. 25 on the streets of St. Petersburg, Florida.

Veach was ranked 11th in the points standings through 11 races of his third season with Andretti. Since a fourth in the June 6 season opener at Texas Motor Speedway, he hadn’t finished higher than 14th.

“The decision was made that I will not be returning in 2021 with Andretti Autosport in the No. 26 Gainbridge car,” Veach said in the Andretti release. “This, along with knowing that limited testing exists for teams due to COVID, have led me to the decision to step out of the car for the remainder of the 2020 IndyCar season. I am doing this to allow the team to have time with other drivers as they prepare for 2021, and so that I can also explore my own 2021 options.

“This is the hardest decision I have ever made, but to me, racing is about family, and it is my belief that you take care of your family. Andretti Autosport is my family and I feel this is what is best to help us all reach the next step. I will forever be grateful to Michael and the team for all of their support over the years. I would not be where I am today if it wasn’t for a relationship that started many years ago with Road to Indy. I will also be forever grateful to Dan Towriss for his friendship and for the opportunity he and Gainbridge have given me.

“My love for this sport and the people involved is unmeasurable, and I look forward to continuing to be amongst the racing world and fans in 2021.”

Said team owner Michael Andretti: “We first welcomed Zach to the Andretti team back in his USF2000 days and have enjoyed watching him grow and evolve as a racer, and a person. His decision to allow us to use the last few races to explore our 2021 options shows the measure of his character.

“Zach has always placed team and family first, and we’re very happy to have had him as part of ours for so many years. We wish him the best in whatever 2021 may bring and will always consider him a friend.”

Andretti fields five full-time cars for Veach, Alexander Rossi, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti and Colton Herta.

It also has fielded James Hinchcliffe in three races this season.