The AI-controlled drivers in NASCAR 2005 will form into packs to set a pecking order, and they will sometimes make mistakes that can cause them to fall back a few spots or result in spectacular wrecks--just like actual NASCAR drivers do. The frequency of wrecks in NASCAR 2005 has been scaled back compared to NASCAR Thunder 2004. You'll see two or three wrecks per race now instead of the half-dozen or more that happened in every race in last year's game, which feels about right. AI drivers will draft when they're off the pace, cut in front when other drivers try to pass, and help out teammates by blocking or nudging other cars out of the way. You can adjust the AI drivers' skill level to one of three different settings in the settings menu that appears before each race.
The controls are intuitive and the overall car handling feels reasonably realistic. Steering is done with the left analog stick, acceleration and braking are handled with the right analog stick (or, alternatively, with two controller buttons), and, if you activate the manual transmission option, you can upshift and downshift using the left and right trigger buttons. Pit stops are enabled by default on advanced difficulty settings and the implementation is pretty no nonsense. When you drive into the pit area, a menu pops up that lets you choose how many tires to replace, whether to repair damage to the car, how much fuel to add, and any adjustments you want the crew to make to the car's wedge angle and tire pressure. The various options contribute to how much time a pit stop will take, which means you can choose to change only two tires or just add a little extra fuel in order to get out of the pits sooner. Much like what happens in an actual race, one of the best pitting strategies is to go in under a caution flag so that you don't drop any spots in the order.
The way vehicles react to how you drive depends on the type of vehicle you're driving. Featherlites have wider wheel footprints, so they're less prone to skids than trucks, which tend to have slippery rear ends and spin when nudged. Busch and Nextel Cup-level cars are extremely stable when you stick to a safe line, but they'll swerve and spin out if you shake the wheel too much or drive onto the track apron. Things like fuel quantity, tire wear, and damage also influence the overall handling of the car. These options, along with stability control and braking assists, can be turned on or off in the settings menu.
Most players will be satisfied with the game's physics and with the available range of car setup options. Bumping into other cars or the walls will cause you to lose some degree of control over the car, and you're liable to skid or spin out if you yank the wheel from side to side repeatedly. Drafting behind other cars will give the car a slight speed boost, while skidding through a turn will slow the car down. If you spin out in the middle of the pack or slam into a wall, a pileup may occur and you may end up blowing out your engine or fuel tank (if you have damage enabled). That's all fairly realistic, but, for some reason, the game is very forgiving when it comes to minor scrapes and "gentle" collisions. You can nudge other cars or race along without experiencing much in the way of consequences with regard to the car's handling or structural integrity.
As for tuning the car, you can bring up a setup menu during practice, happy-hour runs, and right before an actual race, which allows you to tweak four major aspects of the car's handling--including tire pressure, downforce, suspension, and gear ratio. The gear ratio menu is the most hands-on of the four. It lets you pick from nine different presets or it lets you configure your own custom ratio by adjusting each gear individually. The other tuning adjustments have two or three available options each. The number of available handling adjustments is more than sufficient, but the absence of some expert settings, such as weight, camber, and shocks, may bug players that cut their teeth on games like Atari's NASCAR: Dirt to Daytona or Papyrus' NASCAR Racing series for the PC.
One area that's tough to find fault with is the game's visuals. The graphics are sharp, the 3D car models are realistic, and the textures have been stored at such a high resolution that you can clearly read advertisements, slogans, and sponsor logos from a variety of distances and angles. Every official NASCAR driver has the same car, paint job, and sponsor decals he carries during the season, and there are dozens of custom paint schemes to pick from as well. Cars show visible signs of wear and damage as the race goes on. The courses have every fence, flag post, building, Jumbotron screen, and grandstand that they have in the real world. These details aren't static either--flags blow in the wind, stadium displays show race viewpoints, and the clouds in the sky are reflected at different angles in the windows of buildings as you pass by. The draw-in distance is exceptional. Courses are surrounded by hills, mountains, and cities--not bitmaps, but fully rendered 3D objects--and structures on the other side of the track don't just pop into view like they do in some games. The sheer variety of different details visible in each course environment is also extremely sick. Tire tread is left on the track when cars skid, paint sticks to the wall when cars scrape alongside it, and clouds of exhaust and smoke are left behind when cars spin out or crash. If you stop the car in front of the grandstands, you can make out individual spectators. The sponsorship banners that line the track come from actual businesses, such as Coca-Cola, Subway, Lowe's, and Napa Auto Parts. The game even randomly generates the amount of sunlight and cloud cover that's visible in the sky for each race.
Players earn skill points for safe driving and for wins, which can be spent to buy thunder plates that unlock new drivers, cars, tracks, and paint schemes.
Despite the abundance of detail, the graphics engine manages to maintain a steady 60 frames per second most of the time, which keeps the action silky smooth and helps contribute to the game's overall sense of speed. The game does drop a frame here and there, especially on complicated road courses; but even when the frame rate does stutter, the resulting choppiness only lasts for the briefest of moments. It's tough to call the game on a few choppy moments when the graphics engine has the immense job of rendering 43 individual cars, a litany of visual effects, and everything else out on the course all at once.
Most of the audio you'll hear during a race comes from the sounds the cars make as they move down the track and from your pit crew radio. The sounds made by car engines, screeching tires, and scraping metal all seem pretty lifelike. Different sounds vary in volume and location in relation to your car's position among them. The pit crew radio is much more active this year--the crew chief provides a wider variety of information about the car's status and gives immediate warnings when an opponent makes a move to pass. The crew also chimes in with a large vocabulary of compliments and insults regarding your split times, driving ability, and events that happen out on the track. Sadly, the pre- and postgame wrap-ups that injected so much charm into last year's game aren't present in NASCAR 2005, but the improved crew radio is worth the trade-off. If you don't want to listen to the pit crew, you can listen to the car's radio instead. The soundtrack includes 18 different tracks from popular artists such as Saliva, Papa Roach, and Foghat.
NASCAR 2005 is available for all three major consoles--the PlayStation 2, Xbox, and GameCube. All three games look, sound, and play very similarly to one another. The shared draft and intimidation buttons feel more intuitive mapped to the L2 and R2 buttons on the PlayStation 2 controller, but their positions on the auxiliary buttons on top of the GameCube and Xbox controllers don't cause any noticeable discomfort. Even though the Xbox and GameCube theoretically have more graphical horsepower than the PlayStation 2, the two systems still experience the same frame-rate inconsistencies that the PS2 does. All three versions support 480p progressive scan displays. The Xbox version has in-game Dolby Digital 5.1 audio, which makes that version best for those with high-end 5.1 audio setups; but the PS2 and GameCube versions also offer surround-sound support, albeit in the form of Dolby Pro-Logic II. The one feature that the GameCube version doesn't have, that the other two do, is online play. Both the PS2 and Xbox games let players log on and participate in races involving up to four human drivers (along with a full pack of CPU drivers).
The game's online options are sufficient, but they don't really make use of all of the features that Sony's or Microsoft's online services are capable of. Other racing games with online support allow anywhere from 8 to 16 people to compete against one another, while NASCAR 2005 limits the field to a maximum of four human players. A field of up to 40 AI-controlled drivers can be enabled to fill up the track. Both versions of the game support voice chat, friends lists, password-protected games, and a system of leaderboards to keep track of a variety of statistics. However, the process of joining and rejoining games is rather cumbersome. Once a race ends, the game boots players back out to the main network lobby instead of back to one of the chat or game rooms. That makes it difficult to run repeat races with the same group of people, since everyone has to relocate everyone else and the host has to set up a new race from scratch. On the upside, races never really hiccup unless you play against someone with an extremely bad connection. The PlayStation 2 version also supports dial-up connections in addition to broadband connections. However, dial-up users tend to experience quite a bit of lag, which can be eased somewhat by reducing the number of AI-controlled cars or by playing head-to-head instead of with four players.
Ultimately, no matter which console you own, if you're a NASCAR fan you simply must go out and pick up NASCAR 2005: Chase for the Cup. It re-creates the NASCAR experience in spectacular fashion, and all of the included modes, series options, and extras provide an excellent amount of value for the cost. Despite the removal of a few features that made NASCAR Thunder 2004 seem so complete, EA Sports has trumped that release by including so many new features in this year's game.