Jimmie Johnson knew his unprecedented reign as NASCAR Sprint Cup champion had to end sometime.
But Johnson refused to give up hope until he was mathematically eliminated from the Chase for the Championship on Sunday.
Now, as the focus has shifted to the last two men standing, Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart, heading into Sunday's season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Johnson has taken a moment to reflect on his body of work.
Five straight championships. Only Cale Yarborough (1976-78) had won as many as three in a row. And only Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, with seven each, won more total championships.
"I'm definitely disappointed that we won't be able to go to Homestead and race for our sixth, but that's motorsports," Johnson said this week after being eliminated at Phoenix. "It's a very tough business. What we did over the last five years was absolutely spectacular, and I've just got to thank … Hendrick Motorsports, (crew chief) Chad Knaus and this whole race team for giving me everything they've had."
In a way, Johnson felt a little relief.
"To a certain degree, being on top for as long as we have been takes a lot of effort to maintain that," said Johnson, who is fifth in the standings. "It just takes a lot out of you. So this will be a nice winter to unplug and relax and really look internally and dissect the different areas of the race team and what we do and come back stronger.
"I've always learned more from tougher moments, and by no means is this a tough moment. Yes, the streak is gone. But even though we're not in position to win the championship, we're going to go to Homestead and try to have our best race down there that we can. We've still got a shot at a top-five in points, and that would be a big year still."
Johnson, 36, has two wins this season, his fewest since he began driving in the Cup series full time in 2002. He was third in the Chase after winning at Kansas, but a crash the next week at Charlotte, which led to a 34th-place finish, and a 26th-place run at Talladega ended his shot at winning six straight titles.
"There's a reason why no one had won five in a row before, and it just doesn't happen," Johnson said. "I'm very proud of what we've accomplished this year. … I hate the mistakes that happened in the Chase, and I have to take responsibility for a lot of them.
"I was the guy behind the wheel in the crashes that took place and a bunch of the strategy for Talladega and a lot of different aspects of it. That stuff happens, and you can't win them all. We certainly want to and are going to try. … We'll come back next year and try it again."
Stewart, a two-time champion, can't fathom anyone else winning five in a row.
"I haven't won two straight, so I have no clue what five straight feels like," said Stewart, the series champion in 2002 and 2005. "I would put money on it that it will never happen again. The competition gets tighter and tighter, tougher and tougher. It's amazing.
"You understand why people didn't want him to win a sixth one. But I've said from Day 1, 'How do you knock down a guy who's going out and doing what he's supposed to do?' I know this year hasn't ended the way they wanted, but they have to take a lot of pride in knowing they've done something in the history of the sport that most likely will never be duplicated."
Unlike Stewart, whose 2002 championship predated the Chase, all five of Johnson's championships were in the Chase format, where many of the 10 tracks are 1- to 1.5-mile layouts that his team mastered better than anyone else.
"I'll definitely have more fun and get a lot of sleep going in there," Johnson said of not having the championship on the line this weekend. "I'll bet you the No. 99 (Edwards) and the No. 14 (Stewart) won't.
"I've been racing 31 years, and I've won probably two other big championships along the way. So, seven out of 31 years; this is normal.
"What we did over the last five years is abnormal. And then now we'll get a taste of normalcy."