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…