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Neuville leads Ogier midway through Monte Carlo Rally

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MONACO (AP) Belgian driver Thierry Neuville took a 45-second lead Friday over defending world rally champion Sebastien Ogier midway through the season-opening Monte Carlo Rally.

Overnight leader Neuville won three of Friday’s six special stages, while Ogier struggled early on before pegging Neuville back by winning the last two. Ott Tanak of Estonia is third.

Four-time champion Ogier is now driving for Ford M-Sport after switching from Volkswagen last month. The Frenchman was eight seconds behind Neuville’s Hyundai overnight and quickly under pressure.

Tanak, who also drives for M-Sport, won Friday’s first special stage – the third of 17 overall – ahead of Neuville, with Ogier in ninth.

Difficult morning conditions saw snow and sheet ice on the roads. With all the top drivers fitting studded winter tires, Ogier still went off into a ditch.

“It happened at a junction, it was very, very icy. I pulled the handbrake but the car never turned,” Ogier said. “I slipped into the ditch and became stuck.”

Neuville won the next three specials – with Ogier second on 4 and 5 – but Ogier finally found his best form to trim back the deficit from 1:12 to 45 seconds. He also overtook Tanak, who is a fraction of a second behind Ogier.

Conditions were slushy in the afternoon as the icy roads began melting.

“For me this was more tricky than this morning and difficult to know what rhythm to go,” Neuville said.

A spectator was killed on Thursday night after being hit by a car during the first stage.

Organizers said the spectator was struck by a car driven by New Zealand driver Hayden Paddon during the first of two night stages.

That stage was canceled but the second went ahead, with Neuville beating Ogier.

There are six specials Saturday with the race concluding Sunday lunchtime.

Last year, Ogier won by nearly two minutes ahead of then-teammate Andreas Mikkelsen of Norway.

Ogier announced last month that he was going to drive the Ford Fiesta for M-Sport this season. A fifth title would move him into outright second place on the all-time list behind countryman Sebastien Loeb, who won nine straight titles.

The 33-year-old Ogier, who has won 38 career races, is tied with Finnish drivers Tommi Makinen – who won four straight – and Juha Kankkunen.

The next event in the 13-race season is in Sweden in three weeks.

Bill Elliott joins Tony Stewart/Ray Evernham SRX series for 2021

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NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliott became the eighth driver to join the Superstar Racing Experience, the short-track series being started by Ray Evernham and Tony Stewart.

The two-time Daytona 500 winner and 1988 NASCAR Cup Series champion was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2015 and was voted NASCAR’s most popular driver 16 times (his son, Chase, has received the honor the past two years). Elliott also closed his full-time Cup career driving for Evernham’s Dodge team from 2001-03, winning the 2002 Brickyard 400.

“I am excited to reunite with Ray Evernham and some of the great legends of our sport,” Elliott, who joins Stewart and Bobby Labonte as NASCAR Hall of Famers in the SRX, said in a release. “I look forward to racing at some of the most historic American racing destinations and putting on an awesome show for the fans. We have a special driver field and it will be fun competing with some of the greatest drivers of all time.”

The series, which is expecting to have a dozen drivers, also has Tony Stewart, Helio Castroneves, Bobby Labonte, Paul Tracy, Tony Kanaan, Willy T. Ribbs and Mark Webber in its lineup.

SRX was co-founded by NASCAR Hall of Famers Stewart and Evernham and was unveiled July 13.

Several drivers have expressed interest in the new circuit, which is modeled on the International Race of Champions (IROC) series that matched drivers from various auto racing disciplines in equally prepared cars for an annual four-race series for 30 years.

With the addition of Bill Elliott, Superstar Racing Experience has yet to reveal a schedule or tracks, but it’s expected that Stewart’s Eldora Speedway will be on the slate.