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2018 Dakar Rally kicks off today, 40th year overall and 10th year in South America

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Editor’s note: NBCSN will have daily coverage from the Rally starting on Sunday and running through the end of the Rally, while MotorSportsTalk will also have daily recaps to keep you up to date on the Rally’s progress each day.

Imagine driving from New York to Los Angeles – and then back, roughly about 5,600 miles roundtrip.

And you have 14 days to do it in, meaning you have to average about 400 miles per day.

Sure, you get a break at the end of each day to rest up for the following day’s adventure, but forget about staying in five-star hotels or eating at world-class restaurants.

In fact, you’re likely to pitch a tent next to your ride so you can get up bright and early the next morning and just hop into your vehicle and get back on the road as quick as you can.

Now, further imagine that instead of interstate or multi-lane highways, you’re driving almost solely off-road, to the point where some roads seemingly aren’t roads at all.

Plus, you go through a multitude of conditions and altitudes, from oceans and beaches to deserts to mountains, dodging not only other cars, trucks and motorcycles along the way, but also huge boulders, big dips, rivers, heavy brush, powdery fine sand and even some serious potential drop-offs that you likely wouldn’t wish upon your worst enemy.

And let’s not forget atmospheric conditions in addition to the driving conditions. Competitors can be in weather in the 70s and 80s one day and be closing in on 30s and 40s a day or two later.

Say hello the 40th annual Dakar Rally, which begins today and continues through Saturday, Jan. 20. The longest and most challenging endurance race in the world is celebrating its 10th anniversary in South America.

And while it is likely said every year, this year’s race could indeed be the most challenging event the Dakar has ever seen.

The race begins today in Lima, Peru, meanders through a good chunk of the rest of Peru for the first six stages, saunters into Bolivia for nearly a week, and eventually into Argentina, where it ends in Cordoba.

There’s no passport checks, TSA checking your luggage, no borders to stop at. But there’s plenty of speeding (and no traffic cops to issue tickets), jumping, climbing and dipping under every possible condition man and machine can handle.

This year’s field consists of 335 vehicles – 139 Bikes, 49 Quads, 103 Cars and SxS and 44 Trucks – and 523 drivers and co-drivers, known as “adventurers.”

As we said, this is arguably the ultimate test of man and machine – and sometimes it becomes a battle of man VS. machine.

The key to winning, regardless of whether you’re on four wheels or two, and whether you’re in a car, quad-runner, motorcycle, SxS or truck, is obviously speed.

But that’s far too often easier said than done.

There’s also staying out of the way of fellow competitors, staying out of harm’s way from track obstacles like large rocks or bottoming out too hard after grabbing air in a long jump.

And there’s also the need to have quick assistance at the ready at almost all times if you are involved in a crash or suffer some type of mechanical malfunction.

Here’s three of the top storylines for fans to follow over the next two weeks:

1) Weather

One four-letter word was cursed thousands of times during last year’s Rally: R-A-I-N.

The wet stuff slowed down several days of racing at times, and ultimately caused one full day of racing to be cancelled because the downpours were incessant and so heavy that it made it impossible for drivers to compete. Rain also forced the significant shortening of the Rally’s longest scheduled day by more than half.

With the return of the Rally to Peru and its sands, beaches and deserts, organizers are hoping rain will be more of an inconvenience rather than an insurmountable obstacle as was the case last year.

The middle section of the Rally, in Bolivia, could be the biggest test of all, weather-wise. The two days of racing last year that were cancelled were in Bolivia.

As a result, Rally organizers have relocated much of the Bolivian segment this year to the southern part of the country, where it’s not so rainy.

Of course, that doesn’t mean rain still won’t happen, but Rally officials appear to have done everything humanly possible to try and mitigate and minimize the impact of weather on the course.

2. One last go-round for Peugeot

Peugeot has had a long and successful run over the years in the Rally.

But that run ends after this year’s Rally, as the French manufacturer has decided to call it quits.

At least part of the reason for Peugeot’s departure from Dakar is the pending retirement of its two key drivers, who are also making their final appearances in the Rally.

Stephane Peterhansel and Carlos Sainz are hoping to go out as winners of the bedeviling event.

Peterhansel, 52, is the most successful driver in Rally history, hands down, having won the event 13 times, including last year. He’s not called “Mr. Dakar” for nothing. And don’t be surprised if he goes out a winner two weeks from now.

And then there’s Sainz, otherwise known as “El Matador” for his aggressive driving and, parenthetically taking the bull by the horns when he’s behind the wheel. The 55-year-old driver is reportedly mulling retirement after this year’s race, given Peugeot’s pull-out.

Peterhansel has hinted at retirement, but he may want to try and hook up with another team for next year’s Rally. And what manufacturer wouldn’t want the winningest Driver in Dakar history behind the wheel for them?

3. Is defending champ Sunderland being overlooked?

English bike rider (although he now lives in Dubai) Sam Sunderland, who won the class in last year’s Rally, has been uncharacteristically downplayed by many media and fans heading into this year’s race.

That’s quizzical, as he is one of the most dominant competitors on two wheels. When he won last year’s Rally, Sunderland was looked upon as the next Marc Coma or Cyril Despres, who are Rally legends.

And heading into this year’s Rally, Sunderland, who rides for KTM, has surrounded himself with a strong cast of teammates including 2016 Rally Bike winner Toby Price, 2017 runner-up Matthias Walkner and well-known endure rider Antoine Meo.

But as we kick off the race today, Sunderland is being overlooked in favor of Joan Barreda, who has won 18 stages in the Rally since it moved to South America.

Still, Barreda has never earned a win, let alone an appearance on the podium since first entering the Rally in 2012.

The 34-year-old Spanish rider suffered two serious injuries after last year’s Rally: he broke his collarbone in March 2017 and four months later, broke his wrist badly enough that he required surgery.

So as the green flag drops today for the next 14 days, it’s looking more and more likely that it will be Barreda vs. Sunderland for the master of two wheels.

Keep an eye on this class and particularly this battle between the two riders. It could be one of the most exciting parts of the entire Rally.

INDYCAR: What Drivers Said after qualifying for the KOHLER Grand Prix

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Here’s what the Verizon IndyCar Series drivers had to say, courtesy of IndyCar Media Relations, after Saturday qualifying for the KOHLER Grand Prix (Sunday, 12:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN):

JOSEF NEWGARDEN (No. 1 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet): “It’s nice when you have the car to do it. We had the speed on Friday, so to finish it off today is nice. It’s only goal one. Two races; one for pole, one for the race. We need to close it out. Verizon has been very good to us, and Team Chevy as well. Engine package has been phenomenal to get the most out of it. You see how well we work together with Team Penske and Team Chevy. We just have to be smart and get through the first couple laps. Save the tires, save some fuel and be smart if a caution comes out in the middle of the race. We’ll see what we have for tomorrow.”

MATHEUS LEIST (No. 4 ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet): “Tough qualifying today. We’ve been struggling a little bit finding the best setup for the car. We need to concentrate for tomorrow so that we have a great car for the race. It’s a long race and you never know what can happen. We will keep working, improving and doing our best and will try to have a top 10 tomorrow.”

JAMES HINCHCLIFFE (No. 5 Arrow Electronics SPM Honda): “We’re struggling a little bit with the reds (Firestone alternate tires) – we just didn’t find the gain like everybody else did. I’m not entirely sure, honestly. Obviously, Robbie (Wickens) is doing well, so it’s a bit of a mystery for us. We went more towards his (Wickens’) setup and the balance kind of went out the window for me. It’s weird because we’ve been able to copy and paste setups all year long between the two of us and it just didn’t work here. I feel bad for the Arrow Electronics boys – obviously, the car’s capable of more. We just didn’t get it today.”

ROBERT WICKENS (No. 6 Lucas Oil SPM Honda): “Overall, it’s been a good weekend – we’ve still never been out of the top five in every session. Hopefully, me and the Lucas Oil boys can keep chipping away and come up with a slightly better car for the race tomorrow.”

SCOTT DIXON (No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda): 
“I just didn’t think we had great space to work in out there on the track. There were about five other guys before us and they are all trying to get their spacing right, as well. It’s nobody’s fault, it’s just there’s a tight window for everything. Maybe we should have waved off a third lap on the black (Firestone primary) tires and got ourselves better time on the reds (Firestone alternate tires). It is what it is, though, and we only really had one lap to try and get something going. Then, we had people starting to back up in front of us and never got to show our speed. I think the PNC Bank car had enough for the Firestone Fast Six, but we’ll have to show that speed tomorrow in the race.”

ED JONES (No. 10 First Data Chip Ganassi Racing Honda):
 “The guys on the First Data car made some great changes today after we struggled a little bit early on in the weekend here at Road America. That was the most confident I’ve felt with the car so far this weekend and I felt we were going in the right direction. We were capable of being in the Firestone Fast Six today, but we got held up a bit. On the upside, we have a really fast First Data car and something we can use to improve on up the grid for tomorrow.”

WILL POWER (No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet): “That was close. We were off the whole time. I gave it everything the last lap. A surprise front row. I keep getting front rows every weekend. Not the pole, but yeah, I’m pretty happy. But only five hundredths off, come on. I think I did a really neat lap. Josef (Newgarden) did a great lap. That was all I had.”

TONY KANAAN (No. 14 ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet): 
“I got traffic on my fast lap, but it would have just put us in the top 13, not enough to advance. The car is understeering all weekend. We tried something overnight that didn’t work, so it put us behind a session and we’re back to the car we had yesterday. It was the same car, so we were going to do the same lap time as yesterday when we tried the reds (Firestone alternate tires), but getting traffic didn’t help. But it wasn’t going to change a lot – maybe a few positions, which always helps, but we’ve got a little bit of work to do.”

GRAHAM RAHAL (No. 15 GEHL Honda): “We wanted to be further up and get the GEHL Honda in the top six. We’ve started in the top six every year, but there was nothing more in the car today. For maybe the first time this year, I’m confident saying that; there was nothing more. We only lacked one-tenth (of a second) over four miles from fourth (place), but that’s what Indy car racing is now. Yeah, we qualified ninth, but when you think that a tenth of a second over four-plus miles can move you five spots, it’s crazy, but that’s the reality of Indy car. We’ve just got to try to find a little more improvement for tomorrow, make the car a little more consistent for the race, and hopefully, we can go out there and attack. I think a lot of people have a lot of questions for the race. There is no warmup this year, so we’ll see how it goes.”

SEBASTIEN BOURDAIS (No. 18 Team SealMaster Honda): (About if he feels he’s in a good position to win tomorrow): “Yeah, I don’t know. I’d like to say so, but I’m not sure I believe it myself. It’s been a bit of a tough day. I thought after yesterday we thought we had everything under control, and things were looking good, and this morning we rolled out and struggled with grip and then we went into qualify and really struggled for good. I think I only did one good lap to be honest with you in Q2 on that new set of option tires. Everything was really scrappy and really difficult to put anything together. In (the Firestone Fast Six), I really didn’t get anything done properly. We tried one lap on both sets, but I’m not convinced it was the right thing to do – hindsight 20/20. Just one of those where you come out of the car and you’re not quite sure what else you should or would have done, but not super happy with the way things have gone. The guys did a really good job, but I just — yeah, I’m struggling to read anything that’s happening out there, it’s up and down, making a lot of mistakes, so don’t really feel great about it.

ZACHARY CLAMAN DE MELO (No. 19 Paysafe Honda): “It’s so competitive out there. I thought we had a really good chance at doing better in qualifying, but we ended up on the wrong end of the timing sheet. We just missed making it to the second round by a few tenths, so that’s a bit disappointing. That said, tomorrow is a long race and a lot can happen. I’m confident we can move up the field and get that good result we’ve been chasing the last few races.”

JORDAN KING (No. 20 Ed Carpenter Racing Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet): “We’ve been making progress throughout the weekend, little steps at a time and qualifying was our best session yet. The car is now performing within that half-second window of the front of the field. There’s always that last hundredth of time left to get, so I’m a bit annoyed that we didn’t get it, but it was still a pretty good lap. I got as much as I could out of the car. There was just a little bit of oversteer out of Turn 12 and that’s probably the half a tenth that we needed to transfer. I would have liked to have got through to the next round, but it was still a decent effort considering how much progress we’ve made.”

SPENCER PIGOT (No. 21 Direct Supply Chevrolet): “Qualifying was definitely a solid improvement. It’s nice to have the Direct Supply car in the top 10 to start the race tomorrow. We’ve been making pretty big changes every session and we hadn’t really found anything that worked until qualifying. We were struggling with the front of the car in some places and the rear of the car in other places, we just had to try and tack it down a little bit. Obviously, it helped being on new tires and the reds (Firestone alternate tires), but the car has come alive – certainly a step in the right direction. To only be a tenth or so off the Firestone Fast Six, compared to where we were in practice, is a really good improvement. I’m happy with that, but we want to be higher up and we’ll try for that tomorrow.”

CHARLIE KIMBALL (No. 23 Tresiba Chevrolet): “That’s not the result that we’re all here for, obviously, and I think everyone here at Carlin is disappointed with that qualifying result, but at the same time I know Max (Chilton) and I both have a lot of confidence in this team and our engineering staff. We’ll look at all of the data tonight and learn from each other and try to come up with a plan for tomorrow’s race. The nice thing is that we’re still learning and we’re still constantly making progress, so it’s not like we’re out of options. We still have a lot left to try and a lot left to learn, so we’ll just keep moving forward.”

ZACH VEACH (No. 26 Relay Group 1001 Honda): “This weekend so far has been really good for us just confidence-wise. To show the speed that we have, I think we deserve to be in the top six – the car definitely does. I just made a mistake and just overdrove the reds (Firestone alternate tires) in the top 12 trying to make into the Firestone Fast Six. I calmed myself down and gathered it up, but I could only get us up to 11th. We have a great race car and I’m excited to see what we can do on race day.”

ALEXANDER ROSSI (No. 27 NAPA AUTO PARTS Honda): “We can do a lot from fourth. It’s always disappointing when you lead your two groups and miss out on the pole, but it’s so close. It’s amazing that around a four-mile track, it’s so tight. It’s just a testament to get to the championship, but huge hats off to the whole NAPA Know How team. We really struggled yesterday afternoon and made some good decisions overnight that paid off.”

RYAN HUNTER-REAY (No. 28 DHL Honda): “We didn’t test here, so we were a bit behind the 8-ball, but we made the right changes and I think we put a good effort out today. I was hoping to go one better at practice and be P2, but starting third is somewhere we can work from tomorrow in the race. It’s going to be interesting with no warmup tomorrow and trying to get the right setup on the race car, but it’s the same for everybody. We have an idea with where we are with older tires, so we’ll try and estimate where we need to be with the setup and put our best effort out there. To fight at it from third is a good thing, so we can do it from there.”

TAKUMA SATO (No. 30 Mi-Jack / Panasonic Honda): “It was definitely a good day. The entire team worked extremely well. The No. 30 boys always have, but it is great to give them back a nice position in qualifying. We were just four hundredths (of a second) off from the top six (in Round 2) and that shows how competitive the field is. I’m extremely happy to start seventh, which is the best position here so far. It’s a long race. We believe we have a strong car for the race, so I’m looking forward to having a strong result.”

ALFONSO CELIS JR. (No. 32 Juncos Racing Chevrolet): “Today we had no issues, which was important. Yesterday was for sure a setback, as we needed to run the whole day so that we could experiment with the red (alternate) Firestone tires and the softer compound. So not being able to run on the red tires yesterday really did not help our qualifying effort today. It is what it is at this point, so we will come back tomorrow and be ready to run a good race.”

MAX CHILTON (No. 59 Gallagher Chevrolet): “Even though the results might not have shown it, I think we made a lot of progress here today at Road America. We definitely closed the gap from the beginning of the weekend and I really felt like I got everything out of the No. 59 Gallagher Chevrolet that I could. With us starting where we are tomorrow, we’ll have the freedom to try a completely different strategy, and hopefully, we can come away from a track I love with a decent result.”

GABBY CHAVES (No. 88 Harding Group Chevrolet): “Yet another tough qualifying session for us as we search to find the speed we need to get. We’re going to take a look overnight, and hopefully, we can figure something out for the race. Hopefully, we set ourselves up for a fun race and get to pass a lot of cars.”

MARCO ANDRETTI (No. 98 U.S. Concrete / Curb Honda): “We’ve been slipping backward ever since Practice 1 on the time sheets and just missed it. We’re a little bit loose there. I don’t think I got the most out of Lap 1 and we’re outside looking in by three tenths (of a second), so it’s not like we were that close. Hopefully, we’re better with (tire degradation) than we were with new tires. The race is obviously a different pace, but you still want to start further up than 15th.”