Between around the middle of my elementary school years all the way though graduating high school, I asked for a NASCAR video game (if there was a new one coming out) for Christmas. I would play them all winter break from school and, in the case of a couple of them, for years on end, even completely wearing out my copy of the #1 on this list.
Nevertheless, any of these games are very fun to play and pass the time with during long rain (or snow, in Fontana’s case) delays, through the week after work, or even well into the wee hours of the morning if you can function without much sleep.
#5: NASCAR Racing (1994)
I know, I know, it’s a little risky to put a NASCAR game on here that’s actually a year older than I am but hear me out. I became a NASCAR fan during the 2001 season and around that time one of my favorite things to do was watch my dad play this OG PlayStation game, the first console NASCAR video game ever released.
He had this steering wheel complete with gear shift off to the side and pedals that could be plugged up directly into the original PlayStation to give the gamer a more realistic feel. Seeing that, I knew I had to try it and I eventually took the reigns of that game from my dad who most likely moved on to play whatever the most recent Resident Evil game was or one of the earliest editions of the EA Sports line of NASCAR games.
By far my favorite part of this game is the actual ability to drive down pit road during pitstops. If you got a speeding penalty, it added time to your total at the end of the race, usually dropping you to last place in the field. One of my favorite “cheats” to get around this, however, was to pit in the very last stall, back out of pit road, and continue onto the racing surface at speed. It was a great way to gain positions.
Shhh…don’t tell anybody.
#4: NASCAR Heat (2000)
The new millennium’s original take on the NASCAR Heat series was one of the first video games that I actually got to call my own. In the Little Chicago of Tennessee, there was a used video game, record, and movie shop near the mall that me and my father liked to frequent. We usually went about every other weekend.
While I usually went there to buy more than my fair share of Stephen King movies and most of Bon Jovi’s discography, I remember buying this particular game there as well. By that time, we had transitioned (slowly) from the PlayStation to the PS2 and I asked my dad if our new system would actually play this game with it being a PS1 game and all. He said it would and I used my allowance for that week to buy my first video game.
I’m not sure what caught my attention from the start (the cover is rather bland) but I liked the game and went straight home to play it. My favorite feature of the game was the full-season mode where I usually drove the red and black rookie-stripped #8 Dale car (because Bud wasn’t allowed in video games at the time) for Dale Earnhardt Jr. as I beat up on the old man in the black and silver #3.
I also quickly learned that if you raced without break assists but minimal damage, you could pull off the Hail Mellon at Martinsville before Ross Chastain made it cool.
#3: NASCAR Heat 5 (2020)
NASCAR Heat 5 is the game that I still play to this day. Primarily, that is because it is the most recent outing from a formula that I think works. I’ve enjoyed all the NASCAR Heat Games 2-5 mainly due to their career modes. I like that you can start at the bottom in the dirt late models (think Dirt to Daytona) and slowly progress all the way up to the top in the NASCAR Cup Series.
Or, if you don’t like that idea, you can just jump straight to Cup…or start anywhere you want, really. There’s a lot of freedom to be had in the Heat series career modes and that’s awesome. I also really like that you can choose to either drive for an existing team or start your own team.
My favorite tracks to race on these games are the superspeedways. It is just so fun to manipulate the draft and work your way to the front after starting 38th or so. I chose NASCAR Heat 5 to be on this list mainly because it’s the most recent Heat game. Really, they’re all about the same in terms of gameplay, they’re just updated from year-to-year.
#2: NASCAR 2005: Chase for the Cup
Chase for the Cup was the foundation of what became so great about the EA Sports tenure of NASCAR gaming. With this game, they not only had the Cup Series available for gameplay but also added in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series and Featherlite Modified Series (now Wheelen Modified Tour) for an engrossing career mode.
In it, the driver starts at the bottom of the ladder with NASCAR’s oldest series, the Featherlite Modifieds, a series that is made up mostly of blue-collar workers racing solely for the enjoyment of weekly racing, though legends and NASCAR Hall of Famers like Richie Evans were series regulars. If you perform well in the modifieds, you can move up to the truck series and so on and so forth.
Another cool, albeit, gimmicky aspect of this game is that it is the first game to include the ten-man chase format and incorporate it into its various gameplays. Also, 2004 was the year Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr. teamed up to compete in the Rolex 24 at Daytona so there are Daytona Prototype playable cars to be found in this game to be run on fantasy “rovals”.
#1 NASCAR 07
NASCAR 07 is the peak of EA Sports run in NASCAR. This was when NASCAR gaming was at its best before the quick and steep fall off with ’08 and the absolutely abysmal NASCAR 09. Again, the NASCAR Fight to the Top, or career mode is back at full force.
All three major series are included this time around along with the modifieds and the game brought over Total Team Control and the best ally/rivalry system found in NASCAR gaming, both from the ’06 game. One of my favorite aspects of the career mode in this game is the ability to buy an existing team and even expand the team (if they’re already a four-car operation) to a five-car team. You get to make sponsorship deals, manage your own merchandising, and, if you feel so inclined to, you can hire a driver to race in your place. There are also numerous challenge modes.
My favorite is in a NASCAR Grand National (or Busch) Series race where the player is racing as Dale Earnhardt Jr. on very old tires and you have to hold off friendly rival, Matt Kenseth, for the win. Also, the fantasy tracks are, again, amazing. My two favorites are Dodge Raceway Stadium (kind of a Clash at the Coliseum race before it was even thought of) and Speedway Boulevard, which takes you racing in the streets in Daytona Beach.
Fun fact about NASCAR 07: it was pretty much dated on day one as the cover driver, Elliott Sadler, was already on his way out of the #38 M&Ms Ford and heading over to replace Jeremy Mayfield in the #19 at Evernham Motorsports by the game’s release.
Obviously, there are other great NASCAR games out there such as, my honorable mention, Dirt to Daytona, a precursor to what the revamp of the NASCAR Heat Series ultimately became. These are my top-5. Check them out and have fun with them.