Below, NASCAR on FOX analysts Jeff Hammond and Larry McReynolds weigh in on several topics integral to this year's championship:
ON WHETHER THERE IS A CLEAR-CUT FAVORITE TO WIN THE CHAMPIONSHIP:
"Hendrick Motorsports and Team Penske placed all their drivers in the Chase, and those six drivers have won 17 of 26 races in 2014, including the last four. We haven't been to Chicagoland yet this year, but I relate it a bit to Kentucky, and Brad Keselowski won Kentucky. Keselowski is on the mark now and is my favorite to win. Missing the Chase last year was a wake-up call for him and his team after winning the 2012 title, then not winning a race until October and missing the Chase in 2013. That disappointment was a huge motivation for them. Since the beginning of this season, they've been fast everywhere — in practice, qualifying and in the race."
"At the moment, it's Brad Keselowski. Team Penske has been fast all year long and incredibly consistent. They've got six wins between Keselowski and Joey Logano. And coming off of the big tail-kicking Keselowski gave everyone at Richmond, you have to believe they have an advantage over everybody else going into Chicagoland."
ON THE DRIVERS MOST LIKELY TO BE ELIMINATED AFTER THE CHALLENGER ROUND:
"I don't think AJ Allmendinger, Aric Almirola, Greg Biffle or Carl Edwards will advance to the Contender Round. As for the No. 43 team of Almirola, they are about to go into the deep end of the pool. They won a race and made the Chase, and that's a great season for that group. With the Roush Fenway Racing bunch, I don't see them strong enough across the board to advance very far or be remotely close to contending for the championship. They haven't forgotten how to drive, but the team as a whole isn't where it needs to be. They're further ahead of where they were in the spring or early summer, but still have a long way to go to run with Hendrick and Penske."
"AJ Allmendinger is one. All of a sudden, they're getting into some deep water with some man-eating sharks, and they're getting ready to get gobbled up."
ON WHICH FOUR DRIVERS LIKELY WILL COMPETE IN THE CHAMPIONSHIP ROUND:
"I put Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, Kevin Harvick and Jeff Gordon in the Championship Round. For all intents and purposes, that makes it somewhat of a Hendrick Motorsports versus Team Penske showdown."
ON WHICH TEAM IS PEAKING AT THE RIGHT TIME:
"The Team Penske drivers are peaking at the right time, winning races, running up front and qualifying well. Gaining points and winning championships comes from what you do in a race and not in qualifying, although qualifying helps you out so much in the race. Winning the pole helped Brad Keselowski the other day with the first pit selection. Given the way Team Penske is running and knocking out fast pit stops and strong qualifying efforts, they carry the most mojo into the Chase. Jeff Gordon is a close second because when he's not winning, he's doing a lot of the same things."
"With the decision to swap the Nos. 4 and 14 pit crews on Tuesday, the No. 4 team basically has thrown its hat into the ring as a serious contender given how fast they have been. They have had five second-place finishes this year, and at least four of those would have been a win if it hadn't been for the pit crew's issues."
ON WHETHER A DRIVER CAN WIN THE CHASE WITHOUT SEVERAL RACE WINS:
"There isn't a magic number of races a driver will need to win, and every round is different. That's the mentality of the garage area. I've talked to a lot of the crew chiefs in the Chase, and the consensus seems to be that every round is different. With 16 drivers in the first round, everyone feels at least four drivers will have at least one bad race. Everyone knows if they click off three solid finishes, they likely will advance because at least four drivers will have one bad finish. That's why guys like Ryan Newman stand a strong chance of advancing. He hasn't been contending for wins, but he's consistent with top-10 finishes. But the mountain gets steeper in the next rounds as more drivers are eliminated. To move from the first to the second round, maybe you won't need to win a race. But in the Contender and Eliminator Rounds, you better make a trip to Victory Lane if you want to be a championship contender."
"I don't think a driver can win the Chase without a win. There have been a lot of hypotheticals about whether Matt Kenseth could stick around and work his way into the Championship Round simply based on his consistency. That's not feasible. With the caliber of teams out there, you're going to have to win a race. I think the driver who wins the Chase is going to have to win Homestead."
ON WHETHER ROUSH FENWAY RACING CAN RECOVER AND CAPITALIZE ON ITS CHASE OPPORTUNITY:
"I've seen a lot of improvement over there, especially at the mile-and-a-half and two-mile programs over the course of the season. But at tracks like Loudon, which has similar characteristics to Richmond, they still have a lot of work to do if Greg Biffle or Carl Edwards want to stay in the championship hunt."
ON WHETHER JOE GIBBS RACING CAN CONTEND IN THE CHASE:
"That's a very large question mark for me. The Toyota camp is behind now. Joe Gibbs Racing still could be dangerous, though, and you can't take your eye off of them. They're certainly not in as much trouble as Roush Fenway Racing. Plus, Denny Hamlin has Darian Grubb coming back from suspension. But do I see any of the three JGR cars making it to the Championship Round? No. I'd be hard-pressed to say any of them could go past the Contender Round."
"They're going to struggle if they can't get some help from Toyota. Toyota isn't stepping up to the plate like they need to against Chevrolet and Ford as far as horsepower is concerned. It's going to be really challenging for Joe Gibbs Racing to be a contender as the championship gets tighter with the elimination rounds."
ON WHETHER THE CHASE IS SHAPING UP TO BE A HENDRICK VS. PENSKE SHOWDOWN:
"No. I don't think it will be between those two, per se. There's a little satellite team down the road from Hendrick (Harvick) that easily could be a part of this run for the roses. You have to consider them before it's all said and done."
NASCAR ON FOX SPORTS 1 & FOX SPORTS 2 AT CHICAGOLAND SPEEDWAY
*All times live unless otherwise indicated & subject to change
Friday, Sept. 12
NASCAR NATIONWIDE SERIES PRACTICE (12:00 PM ET) (FOX Sports 1)
NASCAR SPRINT CUP SERIES PRACTICE (1:00 PM ET) (FOX Sports 1)
NASCAR LIVE (2:30 PM ET) (FOX Sports 1)
NASCAR CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES QUALIFYING (3:00 PM ET) (FOX Sports 1)
NASCAR NATIONWIDE SERIES FINAL PRACTICE (4:30 PM ET) (FOX Sports 1)
NCWTS SETUP (8:00 PM ET) (FOX Sports 1)
NASCAR CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES RACING (8:30 PM ET) (FOX Sports 1)
Saturday, Sept. 13
NASCAR SPRINT CUP SERIES PRACTICE (11:00 AM ET) (FOX Sports 1)
NASCAR NATIONWIDE SERIES QUALIFYING (12:00 PM ET) (FOX Sports 2)
NASCAR LIVE (1:30 PM ET) (FOX Sports 2)
NASCAR SPRINT CUP SERIES FINAL PRACTICE (2:00 PM ET) (FOX Sports 2)
Sunday, Sept. 14
NASCAR RACEDAY (12:00 PM ET) (FOX Sports 1)
NASCAR VICTORY LANE (7:00 PM ET; delayed) (FOX Sports 1)