This year's EA Sports racing entry, NASCAR 2005: Chase for the Cup, is the whole kit and kaboodle. (I don't know what that really means, but apparently it's all anyone can ask for, which is the case with this game.)
Chase for the Cup's overhauled gameplay is now the benchmark for racing games -- and second place is a lap down, at best. The graphics are top-shelf and the wrecks are sensational.
The game includes:
• Fight to the Top -- Become a superstar owner or driver and decide where and how you want to race. Develop essential racing skills, increase fan support and compete in three new racing series as you become the driver top NASCAR teams are looking for. (This quickly became my favorite addition.)
• Chase for the Cup -- The first and only game to feature the new point system. This 10-race championship shootout is available in both "Fight to the Top" mode as well as its own stand-alone game mode.
• Grudges and Alliances -- Make your driver a hero or a villain. Force mistakes with the new Intimidation Button or flatten competitors' tires by rubbing fenders (as you risk flattening your own). Rivalries even spill off the track with post-race confrontations.
• Three new racing series -- Chase for the Cup expands its racing field with the addition of the Busch, Truck and Featherlite Modified series. Opportunities present themselves on all levels -- you're a few wins away from hittin' The Show: the Nextel Cup series.
• American muscle production cars -- Settle bitter rivalries with other NASCAR drivers through the streets in production cars. The top American performance cars, including the Ford GT, Dodge Viper and Corvette Z06, provide a high-speed, no-holds-barred style of racing.
• Win the crowd -- Fans play an important role in your success. Make decisions that define your driver's popularity, like whether to participate in the Autograph Session mini-game. Sales of customizable merchandise, including bobbleheads, T-shirts and die-cast cars, depend on your actions both on and off the track. And remember, you don't have to be a nice guy to become a fan favorite.
• Earn Skill Points -- Connect your skills and accomplishments through various game modes with the new Skill Points reward system. Accumulate skill points each time you pass, block, draft, recover or make a pit stop. You can also improve ratings by passing SpeedZone and Lightning Challenges, or turn in Skill Points to unlock in-game secrets.
• Create-A-Driver -- Put yourself inside the world of NASCAR -- literally. Customize your body and racing gear or create your own team colors and designs.
• Four-player online racing -- Chase for the Cup now runs online with up to four simultaneous live racers trading paint against a full field of 43 cars on a single track. It also has improved anti-cheating measures. (An Internet connection is required for this feature.)
With all that at my fingertips, I decided to Chase the Cup -- 10 drivers, 10 races, one champion.
Beginning at New Hampshire, I drove each of the final 10 races (using a different driver in the Chase each time) to see how realistic EA Sports' game played to the real deal. Here are the results:
Robby Gordon didn't cause a commotion, but Kevin Harvick (the coverboy for Chase for the Cup; ironic that he's not in the Chase, though) made a mess of things early. Driving for Elliott Sadler, I managed a 15th-place finish, while Jeff Gordon took the points lead.
Gordon fell from contention as the laps wound down, but I couldn't make a dent in his points lead as my Matt Kenseth ride took a beating; bad pit stops, a blown tire ... it wasn't pretty at the Monster Mile. I finished 23rd.
Feeling the need for speed, I took over Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s Chevy to dominate at the 2.66-mile ribbon of asphalt in rural Alabama. Ryan Newman proved to be too tough to overtake in the waning laps, but Little E did move into second in points with a fourth-place showing.
Bringing my touch of doom to Gordon proved to be lethal to his points lead. In a repeat of Dover, there wasn't a wall I didn't scuff up, a mistake that wasn't made. Still, a 27th-place finish only dropped The Kid to third overall.
Jimmie Johnson owns this track, but not even the good folks at Lowe's were going to save me here. Imagine the feeling of being naked on the Interstate: cars whipping by and nowhere to hide. Final result: a pathetic 33rd.
Figuring I'd done enough damage to the front-runners, I opted for Mark Martin's ride in hopes of lifting his standing in the Chase. Five-hundred miles later, a third-place showing moved Martin to fourth in points, but well behind Junior, Gordon and Tony Stewart.
Another track built for triple digits on the speedometer, Kurt Busch was the man to beat ... for the first 50 or so miles. After a pit mishap (overshot the box), I sped off and was flagged for speeding. In the end, he moved up a spot in points to fifth, and Gordon regained the lead, after I came home 11th.
Tooling around in Jeremy Mayfield's car (he's not in the game; you have to create-a-driver) was an enjoyable ride; fifth-place finish, moved him up to fourth in points. One thing I did notice: His car just didn't have the get-up-and-go that Newman's Dodge did. Still, a top-10 finish (eighth) was respectable.
Speaking of Newman, he had a chance -- albeit a slim one -- to make a run at the Cup. Flipping a coin between his car and Stewart's, I saddled up and brought home the Dodge in 13th place. It was good enough to move him within double-digits of the title.
Entering the final race, Gordon led Earnhardt Jr. by 53 points. Stewart was in third, followed by Newman and Busch. I figured Stewart's track history at Homestead would play into my favor and it did; a sixth-place finish overtook Junior for second, but Gordon took the title by winning the race.
My final tally: average finish of 14th with four top-10s. Will the real-life Chase mirror these results? Probably not; the 10 drivers vying for the Cup have varied histories at these eight tracks (chart above), but Gordon is the favorite.
At least that's how the Chase played out in fantasyland.