Unless you count 2009's NASCAR Kart Racing (and why would you?), NASCAR 2011 is the first NASCAR game for the Wii. That doesn't mean, however, that it is a worthy one. This is circuit racing stripped to its bare essentials, held up only by a functional driving model that struggles to capture the tension of the real thing. Even on hard difficulty, you'll rarely feel challenged by the other 42 drivers on the track. Beginning a race in pole position is essentially a guarantee that you'll finish in first unless you crank the difficulty up to very hard. Off the track, Wii owners get few of the frills Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 owners enjoyed. There is no paint booth, no way to save races for sharing or later viewing, and no detailed vehicle customization. Invitational events give this sparse package some much-needed variety, but this halfhearted effort is a mere shadow of the great NASCAR games of years past.
Don't like the look of your vehicle? Oh well--you can't customize it.
Career mode drops you into the shoes of a known NASCAR driver or one of your own making and puts you through the paces, from Daytona to Homestead-Miami. You take to the circuits one at a time and make your way through a 36-race season, including the road course races on Watkins-Glen International and Infineon Raceway. The mode is functional, but it's also dry and straightforward--no substitute for the impressive and extensive Fight to the Top modes in older NASCAR games. Even victory celebrations are subdued. Your driver dances about and breaks out the champagne while surrounded by fist-pumping fans, but this canned display gets old, and the roar of the crowd sounds more like a mild sigh. The blandness of the visuals further emphasizes the lack of excitement. The frame rate holds up nicely on the track, but jagged edges, fuzzy crowds, and drab vehicles suck the life out of crash replays.
Outside of the career mode, you can take any car to any track for a one-off race, or compete in eliminator events in which you set the number of challengers. These modes hold no surprises, so it's up to NASCAR 2011's invitational events to provide some diversity, and they do a decent job of it. You unlock these as you progress through your career, and they come in a few varieties. Perhaps the most interesting are legends challenges, in which you must draft other drivers to unlock collectible coins. A satisfying whoosh makes it enjoyable to draft, so an event focused on this mechanic is a good addition. Time trials, elimination events, and two-part gauntlet races round out the invitationals.
Elimination events provide some of the only occasions in which you see drivers in front of you.