BY CHRIS MCNULTY
THE mercury rose in the hills from early on Saturday morning and Garry Jennings scorched his way through a hectic and dramatic day to take a 48-second lead into the final day of action.
Jennings, the 2012 winner and Letterkenny’s Rory Kennedy set the fastest time on three of Saturday’s special stages to take full advantage of Donagh Kelly’s misfortune.
The Frosses man came into Donegal with his confidence soaring, but his challenge ended on Saturday morning.
Kelly overshot the opening stage, Garygort, after which he said the Focus was ‘all over the place’.
It got worse still for Kelly and Kevin Flanagan on the second run of Garygort. They dropped a minute of time after hitting a stone and damaging the car.
Declan Boyle was unhappy at being held up behind Kelly.
Championship leader Kelly managed to get back on track on the later stages, but was resigned to not winning the event.
“We’ll keep going and we won’t give up, but we’ll be realistic about challenging for a win,” he said at service in Milford.
While he still managed to crack a couple of fastest times, the day – and seemingly the title – already belonged to Jenning.
“Rory is keeping me right,” the Kesh man said at the end of day two.
“It’s been a good battle. It’s phenomenal. We have a good cushion. We’ll get the game plan now for the morning.”
Kennedy said he’d keep pushing Jennings over the final six stages, noting: “It’s the only way he drives well and there is no quarter being given in any case.”
Jennings had a minor moment on Garygort when a sponsor’s sign fell off the dashboard and dropped into the footwell, getting stuck at the throttle in the process.
The Lettermacaward cousins, Declan and Brian Boyle, began to get the hang of the new Fiesta over Saturday and on the final stage of the day, the second run around Gartan, they were the fastest crew.
“We’re trying to get the handling right, but it’s not too bad,” Boyle said in the morning.
“We can’t let her hang in the corners and there’s only so much we can do.”
By the end of the day, Boyle was in second.
“We’re happy with where we are,” he mentioned. “We’re looking forward to Sunday. We’ll soften her now and see where it takes us on Sunday.”
Derek McGarrity was in fourth, over a minute and a half adrift of Kelly, who ended day two in third. McGarrity had a slow puncture on the morning stages and was off the road on SS13, Carnhill.
Early in the day, Daragh O’Riordan and Tony McDaid complained about the tyres, but they completed day one’s top five, although Seamus Leonard, in the McKinstry Impreza, was in the groove and closing in.
Only six of the crews got through the first run of Garygort, the day’s first stage, after the overnight national leader, Gary McPhillips, had a big off. Competitors were given an alternative road book and headed for Knockalla.
Organisers reported the crowds to have been ‘bigger than we’d expected’.
“Big jumps and big crowds,:” said Michael Galvin, co-driver for Stephen Wright, after Carnhill.
The competitors all noted the volume of the crowds with thousands lining the routes.
Muff’s Joe McGonigle, in the S2000 Fabia, was going strong and led class 5 after Saturday’s action, nestling neatly well inside the top ten.
MANUS Kelly and Donall Barrett sat well poised, holding a 20.9 second lead after inheriting the lead following the opening stage, Garygort.
Kelly had trailed Gary McPhillips by just 1.4 seconds after Friday’s stages, but it was Kelly who was in command by the end of day two.
McPhillips veered off on the first corner of Garygort. He and his navigator, Paul Sheridan, were attended to by the medics and while the Escort was badly damaged, the crew were said to be ‘dazed but ok’.
Kelly led by ten seconds after the opening run of Knockalla. After the morning’s first four stages, only 7.6 seconds separated fifth and ninth in the national rally.
“It’s nip and tuck but we’re happy,” Kelly said heading for Carnhill.
“We’re going hard, but tidy. I’m devastated that Gary has gone with the rivalry we have. Technically, we’ll push it on.”
By the time the Escort rolled back into Parc Ferme, Kelly was 20.9 seconds in front of nearest challenger, the Donegal Motor Club Chairman Brian Brogan, with Damien McGettigan on the notes.
Kelly extended his lead on Carnhill, but complained of vibrating in the back of the car after his home stage, Gartan.
On Carnhill, Kelly spun at Ballyare Bridge, but the Glenswilly man was content with his lot, six stages from the finish.
Kelly said: “I’ve never been this relaxed, but we still have a full day’s rallying to do.
“We’re looking forward to Sunday now. I like Fanad, but they’re all good stages.”
Brogan, on several occasions throughout the afternoon, said the car was misfiring, but his times belied any problems that might have been.
Brogan said: “We just need to keep it clean and tidy and not mess it up now.
“The weather could make a difference on Sunday.”
County Tyrone’s Adrian Hetherington roared through the early part of the day and was 22.6 seconds behind Brogan at the end of Saturday’s loops.
One of the highlights of the day on Saturday was the display of Paul and Karl Reid in their Escort over Carnhill. The Ballyare boys set the fastest times among the national competitors on their home stage – despite a visit to a hedge – and was again impressive on Gartan to sit fourth by the close of business.
Reid said: “We’re watching ourselves on the home stages because you can mess it up very handy. We had a good run at it. We’re taking the very last out of the car.”
Asked if he’d ease off on Sunday, Reid looked almost insulted, responding: “We’ll keep the pressure on now.”