So first of all, why would you make a sport out of driving round and round in circles hundreds of times? How would it become popular? Why would people watch? Why would anyone in their right mind want to make a computer game out of said sport? Especially given that there's already a wealth of awesome racing games around with a whole variety of tracks, many of which include several of the mind-bogglingly ingenious right-turns.
Alright, NASCAR fans have heard it all before I'm sure. I can't say this is the sport for me, but being charitable we can imagine it has its drama, colourful characters, controversy, and all the rest of that human stuff which people love about sports. The Americans have a particular fetish for NASCAR because, as with everything American, it involves drinking American beers and waving flags around - you know the whole party-USA thing. The only problem with a sport which relies on these kinds of elements is that they aren't easily integrated into a computer game. The fact is that the only gameplay involved in this game is centred around driving in a circle thousands and thousands of times.
Of course this has allowed EA to get a lot of things congruently realistic about the act of turning left, again and again and again. Things like drafting, where you cunningly pull up behind a car in-front, using them to ingeniously battering-ram your way through the oncoming air-resistance and thus gaining a speed advantage and thus being able to pull up along-side them, and over-take, and celebrate, and look back, and have them pull the same dirty, cheating trick on you! But besides, plenty of other racing games have slip-stream in them so it's no big deal.
NASCAR is also known for its awesome pile-ups, which leaves me wondering two things: where are they? And, why haven't EA done a better job in creating realistic damage? Actually the damage isn't too bad, for 2002 standards - but this is 2008, and we've all played GTA IV, GRID, and Forza 2, so what the hell are these chunky polygons flying into the air and where's my painstakingly realistic paintwork scratches? As for pile-ups, they don't happen in this game - forget about it. Also, the in-game model of your driver will remain pathetically static when viewed in third-person and in replay modes.
Other than that, the graphics are pretty good. The tracks are detailed, the cars are shiny, and everything is 3D models galore. Night-time looks particularly impressive with stunningly realistic lighting. The weather is good, and do you know they really got them clouds right? But honestly, what the heck am I talking about? This is supposed to be a racing game, do I really care if they got the clouds right? I'm driving in circles for god sake! So I hang a right into the wall for a bit of entertainment; and watch the disappointing chunks fly over my bonnet.
The crashes still look pretty good actually, and they sound great. There's nothing wrong with the game's sound effects in general. The default music takes the form of southern USA rock and country, which I guess speaks volumes about who is expected to buy this game, and on which I have no comment at this time.
As a consolation to the various aforementioned faults, NASCAR 09 features many numerous FMV tutorials from *the* Jeff Gordon. In-fact he actually step-by-step guides you through the majority of the game, including car setups, difficulty settings, the menus and so on. Actually I don't know who he is, but apparently he's big in NASCAR; he comes across as a bit of a bore to be quite honest. I'm sure his fans dig him and all that stuff, but my point is if you don't know who he is - why will you care? If you do, will you really buy a 360 game just to hear his canned advice on how to turn left better than anyone else?
I never played NASCAR 08, but apparently this is a big improvement in almost every respect. A particular gripe about 08 was the overly aggressive AI which would not hesitate to gang up on the player and take them down. Well that's not really the case this year, in-fact I found the AI to be pretty realistic from my limited knowledge of NASCAR.
As mentioned, players have the option of customising their car set-ups. You can also paint and design cars - adding flames, stars, stripes, all that jazz. The game also features, of course, a career mode which allows you to progress through various different NASCAR championships, and a kind of weak online multiplayer (no split screen). These kinds of features are really the minimum expected in any racing game.
There's little reason anyone but a NASCAR fan will buy this game when there's things like GRID, Forza, Gran Tourismo and so forth flying about. But if a NASCAR fan wants to buy a game, there's no other choice for them. So this is it. NASCAR 09 actually captures the real driving elements of the sport really well and it handles realistically; but without being a true fan of the sport I can only speculate that many of the things which really appeal about this US tradition are the kinds of elements - such as flag waving and beer drinking - which don't translate well into a computer game. You've always got the Jeff Gordon tutorials to keep you interested at least...