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Friday December 15th, 2017 9:02AM

Hamlin sweeps Darlington, rallies to Southern 500 win

By The Associated Press
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DARLINGTON, S.C. (AP) — Denny Hamlin has run for championships before without success. He's worked hard this season to make sure his latest try for a title the way he and his team want.

Hamlin won for the second time this season and established himself a strong contender for his first NASCAR crown when he overcame a bad mistake to take the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway.

Hamlin reeled in Martin Truex Jr. with three laps left, erasing a deficit of some 20 seconds to sweep Darlington's throwback weekend.

After a regular-season finish at Richmond International Raceway next week, the playoffs get going and Hamlin again plans to be hot on the heels of regular-season points champion Truex.

We've been at this point before where we had wins going into the playoffs," Hamlin said. "Luck has kept us from championships in the past and mistakes have kept us from championships in the past. Not many times has it been performance."

Hamlin said he's taken a less from team owner — and three-time Super Bowl winner — Joe Gibbs.

"Coach is all about having a game plan," Hamlin said. "And it's something I've really worked hard on this year is studying notes and coming up with a game plan when I get to the track.

"Hopefully," he said, "it pays off 11, 12 races from now."

Gibbs said Hamlin quickly took to Darlington when the team brought him here for a test before bringing on board at Joe Gibbs Racing. "Denny had never seen the place and he came over here and finished ninth" in an Xfinity race, Gibbs recalled. "Kind of the rest is history."

Hamlin and Gibbs hope to make more NASCAR history together the next few months.

___

Things we learned at Darlington Raceway:

TRUEX OUT FRONT: Martin Truex Jr. took advantage of NASCAR's revamped playoff system in clinching the regular-season title and No. 1 spot two weeks before the 16-team postseason begins at Chicagoland. Truex is glad that he's got a cushion to advance even if he has some problems in the early playoff segments. "Definitely can go to Richmond (next week) with no pressure, which is awesome," Truex said.

Truex was a favorite after winning four races including two of the first three in the championship chase last season. However, he faltered in the round of 12 with an accident at Charlotte and a blown engine at Talladega to fall out.

DARLINGTON SWEEP: Hamlin knows how to sweep races at the track "Too Tough To Tame," accomplishing the Darlington double in 2010 and this weekend. Hamlin won his first Cup race here seven year ago after winning the Xfinity even. This time, Hamlin survived two dramatic endings to earn his trophies. He drove around Joey Logano in the final turn on Saturday for that win, then overcame his miss of pit road and falling 20 seconds behind Martin Truex Jr. to take the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series title.

NOT EASY: Kyle Busch, who finished second to teammate Hamlin, said Darlington's pit road entrance is one of the trickiest and most difficult to manage in NASCAR. "This one is probably one of the hardest, especially because of the tire falloff is just so great here," Busch said. "Darlington here is probably the worst."

ON THE BUBBLE: Logano needs to get a lot faster at Richmond next week if he hopes to make the playoffs. Logano, who was second in the Xfinity race here Saturday, had hoped to parlay that into a strong, playoff-clinching effort on Sunday. Instead, he was 18th at Darlington and never a threat for the top. Logano won at Richmond in the spring, however, a failed inspection cost him his playoff eligibility. "You could almost write an article without talking to me," he said.

___

More AP auto racing: http://racing.ap.org

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