Al-Attiyah 33 minutes up on Loeb before last Dakar stage

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BISHA, Saudi Arabia (AP) — A fourth Dakar Rally title is in reach for Qatari driver Nasser Al-Attiyah, who will take a 33-minute lead into the last stage.

Al-Attiyah stuck fast to his nearest rival Sebastien Loeb on the 11th stage on Thursday and ended up gaining some seconds after the Frenchman was penalized five minutes for speeding in a restricted zone.

Instead of finishing runner-up to Carlos Sainz on the 346-kilometer loop stage into the Saudi dunes north of Bisha, Loeb's time penalty dropped him to eighth.

Instead of gaining more than four minutes on Al-Attiyah, he lost 39 seconds. His sixth bid for a first Dakar title appears over.

The standings aren't expected to change on the last stage on Friday, a short 164-kilometer sprint from Bisha to Jeddah, where the rally started on New Year's Day.

Al-Attiyah has led the entire way.

"To control the Dakar is not easy, but I think we have a lot of experience now and we just need to manage the situation and to finish,” he said.

Saudi driver Yazeed Al Rajhi, racing his third Dakar at home and lying third overall more than an hour behind, is expected to make the podium for the first time.

Sainz led the penultimate stage throughout, winning his second stage of this Dakar and 41st in his career. Lucio Alvarez of Argentina was three minutes behind in second, and Mattias Ekstrom of Sweden third. Al-Attiyah was seventh.

British rider Sam Sunderland regained the overall motorbike lead by taking fast advantage of others’ tracks as he expected to when he was the 14th starter in the morning.

“Not just me, but a lot of guys sort of took it easy yesterday on the stage to have a better start position today,” Sunderland said. "You saw that today. Everybody pulled the pin; it was, ‘Let’s go.’ I was the same, all in, and here we are. It's not a smart plan until the race is finished and you've done the job.”

Sunderland, the 2017 champion, has led for most of the rally until this second week, but wasn't too unhappy with his position on Wednesday night. He showed why on Thursday.

He was among the leaders at every checkpoint, and was beaten to the stage win by four seconds by Kevin Benavides, the defending champion who suffered mechanical problems and didn't finish on Wednesday but was allowed, under new rules, to continue racing.

Sunderland's main rivals, Matthias Walkner of Austria and Pablo Quintanilla of Chile, were five and seven minutes back at Bisha.

The biggest loser was Adrien van Beveren, who had the overnight race lead. The Frenchman was among the riders to open the way and suffered navigation errors. He lost more than 19 minutes, and dropped from first to fourth overall, more than 15 minutes behind Sunderland.

Sunderland goes into the last stage leading Quintanilla and Walker by around seven minutes. With the end in sight, the trio will believe they can win. Van Beveren has likely missed out on a first Dakar podium finish.

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More AP sports: https://apnews.com/hub/apf-sports and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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