French veteran Stephane Peterhansel was heading for a record-extending 14th Dakar title after ending Wednesday's Stage 10 in Saudi Arabia with a 17 minute advantage over his closest rival Nasser Al-Attiyah.
While 'Mr Dakar' maintained his comfortable lead in the car category, overnight motorcycle leader Jose Ignacio Cornejo saw his dreams evaporate when he crashed and had to retire on medical grounds with two stages to go.
That left what looked like a straight fight between defending champion Ricky Brabec of the United States and his Argentine Honda team mate Kevin Benavides.
X-Raid Mini driver Peterhansel was third in the 342km stage from Neom to Al-Ula, behind Qatar's Al-Attiyah in second and Saudi winner Yazeed Al Rajhi.
"I think tomorrow will decide the Dakar. It's going to be a tricky stage, but we'll do our best," said Toyota's Al-Attiyah. "There's no strategy, we'll just keep driving fast."
Defending car champion Carlos Sainz remained third overall but more than an hour off the lead. The rally ends in Jeddah on Friday.
Cornejo crashed his Honda at the 252km mark of the stage but managed to finish before a medical examination ruled out any further involvement due to the risk of concussion. The Chilean had been 11 minutes ahead at the start of the day.
Brabec won the stage and is now 51 seconds behind Benavides with Britain's Sam Sunderland third on a KTM but 10 minutes and 36 seconds off the lead.