NOME, Alaska (AP) -- In a stunning reversal of fortune, four-time Iditarod champion Jeff King within hours went from leading this year's race to scratching just miles from the finish line.
King cited severe winds near the last checkpoint along the nearly 1,000-mile trail in Safety, and told officials he had trouble navigating the trail.
On Monday, he left the checkpoint in White Mountain with an hour's lead over Aliy Zirkle. But the Iditarod website said a gust of wind blew King and his dog team into driftwood. He was able to untangle the team but couldn't get them moving again.
Winds were gusting about 40 mph and there was blowing snow near Safety.
Zirkle passed King and was likely waiting out the storm in Safety. Meanwhile, third-place musher and 2012 champion Dallas Seavey was charging hard for Safety, which is 22 miles from the finish line in Nome.
Officials said King was not quite 4 miles from the checkpoint in Safety, and waited with his team for 2 1/2 hours before he decided to scratch. He contacted a passing snowmobile driver, who took him to the checkpoint to make it official at 11:50 p.m.
King and others were to move his dog team to Safety for the night.
King's scratch means the race could come down to a repeat of 2012, when Seavey beat Zirkle by an hour.
If Zirkle were to win, it would be an unlikely finish. She has been the runner-up in the last two races and seemed destined for the same outcome this year until King ran into trouble on the trail.
While King's GPS unit didn't indicate any movement for hours, Zirkle steadily gained on him before eventually overtaking him just outside Safety, on the Bering Sea coast.
Meanwhile, it appears the trail and conditions continuing into Nome only get worse, and Zirkle could be taking shelter in Safety. Seavey was just a few miles out of the checkpoint after starting the run from White Mountain nearly three hours behind King.
The winner was expected under the burled arch sometime Tuesday, with mushers on what could appear to be a record pace despite poor trail conditions.
Zirkle is trying to become the first woman to win the race in 24 years. The last woman to win was four-time champion Susan Butcher in 1990. Libby Riddles was the first female winner, taking the crown in 1985.
King won the Iditarod in 1993, 1996, 1998 and 2006. Rick Swenson, of Two Rivers, is the race's only five-time champion.
The trail this year has been marked by poor conditions because of a lack of snow after a warm winter by Alaska standards.
A number of mushers were injured at the beginning of the race as their sleds ran on gravel near the Dalzell Gorge. One musher, Scott Janssen of Anchorage, had to be rescued by a National Guard helicopter crew after breaking an ankle.
Snowless conditions again greeted mushers as they traveled some portions along the western coast of the nation's largest state.
The race began March 2 in Willow with 69 teams. As of Monday evening, 16 mushers had dropped out and one was withdrawn, leaving 52 teams on the trail.
The Iditarod winner receives $50,000 and a new truck. The 29 teams after that get cash prizes decreasing on a sliding scale. All other teams finishing the race receive $1,049.
John Baker holds the fastest finish in Iditarod history, covering the trail from Anchorage to Nome in eight days, 18 hours and 46 minutes in 2011.