There's always been something about NASCAR video games that prevented me from playing them very long. Maybe it was all the left turns. Or maybe all I needed to do to zip through the pack and gain an insurmountable lead was keep my finger pressed to the accelerator button. I thought winning the virtual Nextel Cup was the easiest championship to win in all of the video game sporting world.
So that brings me to the latest version: Electronic Arts' NASCAR '06 Total Team Control ($49.99 for PlayStation 2, Xbox). Is it on par with the company's recent releases of Madden NFL '06 and NCAA Football '06? Absolutely not. But is this year's version better than all of its NASCAR predecessors combined? Absolutely.
That's because, for the first time, it takes strategy -- not just the willingness to keep your finger pressed on a button -- to cross the finish line first. This game revolutionizes the genre because you must interact with your teammates and pit crew to succeed.
If you need a drafting partner or would like a teammate to block a rapidly approaching competitor, you have to ask by using the joystick (or by saying the command into the headset if you own one). And if you should take a turn too fast and total your car, just press a button and you'll magically swap cars with a teammate. If you're using Jimmy Johnson's car and run into the wall, don't worry because you can just take Jeff Gordon's No. 24 with the press of a button.
You are also in constant communication with your crew chief. You can take his advice, or tell him just how much fuel to add and what tires you want replaced when you enter the pit.
NASCAR '06's graphics are stunning down to the slightest dent in a fender, and the game-play is smooth, especially in the game's best mode, "Fight to the Top." The goal is to work your way up the NASCAR hierarchy by winning races to become a superstar with a top-tier garage and more money than you can spend.
But be careful; there are consequences for your actions on the track.
If you sideswipe another driver and put him into the wall, he'll become a rival -- and try to get payback. But if you allow a driver to use your draft, he'll show you the same courtesy down the line.
NASCAR '06 isn't as good as Electronic Arts' recent releases in other sports, but when it comes to racing games, it takes the checkered flag.
-- Jon Gallo