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Monday, February 14, 2005; Page D02

Auto racing video games always have lacked personality, unlike basketball and baseball games, in which Allen Iverson might break down the opposition with a cross-over dribble or Sammy Sosa would unveil his signature bounce-step after a home run.

Electronic Arts' "NASCAR 2005: Chase for the Cup" ($50, PlayStation2, Xbox, GameCube) tries to break the sport down to a personal level. The game starts when your character -- a regular guy with no racing experience -- is approached by NASCAR star Ryan Newman, and if you beat him in a street race, he signs you to a racing team. If only it was that easy in real life.

NASCAR 2005 tries to satisfy every racing fan's needs by making every circuit of racing available: the Busch, Craftsman Truck and Featherlite Modified series, which all lead to earning a spot in the Nextel Cup field.

What is special about this game is it is more intriguing to create and manage teams in each circuit than to spend hours going counterclockwise around a track.

But for those who want a more hands-on approach, the racing is vastly superior to last year's edition.

If you trade paint with another driver -- even one controlled by the computer -- he won't forget. Payback is coming, sometimes even two races down the line, when you get rear-ended into the wall. Users suffer consequences for their actions, but can also prosper by showing good sportsmanship. You can make friends by letting someone take advantage of your draft, which can lead to alliances that can work to your benefit throughout the season.

NASCAR 2005 has outstanding graphics -- even the slightest dent is visible -- yet what makes the game a success is what it allows you to do off the track, not on it.

-- Jon Gallo

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