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.
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.
NASCAR 2011 makes it easy for newcomers to jump right in, and there are a number of driving assists to help you smoothly navigate the curves. Unfortunately, you can't tweak vehicle handling any further. While the other versions let you customize minutiae like brake bias and differential ratio, NASCAR 2011 on the Wii offers no such features. In fact, Wii owners don't get any number of features other iterations boasted--and those versions were lacking in content to begin with. There is no paint booth, so you can't modify your car with flags, flames, and fonts of your own choosing. There is no replay feature, so you can't save races for viewing at various camera angles, let alone share your favorite moments online. Nor is their any online racing, though you can join a friend in two-player split-screen races.
Any goodwill NASCAR 2011 earns quickly wears off when you discover that AI drivers are simply incapable of challenging you. You can smash into walls multiple times during qualification and still have no trouble taking pole, even on hard difficulty. And should you start the race in first place, you will almost always finish in first, often by an enormous margin should you play on medium difficulty. Perhaps this pitiful challenge is meant to compensate for the digital controls: if you use a classic controller or stick with a Wii Remote and Nunchuk, accelerating and braking are either/or actions. You either slam on the brake, or you stay off of it; you either accelerate at full speed, or you don't accelerate at all. A GameCube controller's analog triggers allow for more subtlety, though they're still too rigid to feel totally comfortable. As a result, NASCAR 2011 feels clunky, particularly on road courses. That's a real shame, given that steering is smooth and responsive regardless of your preferred control method.
On the hardest difficulty level and with assists at a minimum, races can still provide a modicum of excitement, rewarding you for sticking close to a proper racing line and requiring you to draft and pick up speed so that you might slingshot ahead. The game assigns you a rival in each race, and beating him (or her) gives you a little extra incentive to drive well, though this is a far cry from NASCAR Thunder 2004's involved rivalry/alliance system. In NASCAR 2011, the track is your greatest rival; scraping the wall might throw you out of your rhythm, while a misconceived attempt to slide into an opening might lead to disaster. Assuming you're racing more than a few laps and have turned on tire wear and damage, you also need to pay mind to your fuel gauge and vehicle condition. This affects your efficacy on the course, and in long races, you need to make a pit stop when necessary to replace tires and fuel up.
NASCAR 2011 is a gutted version of a game that was short on value to begin with, yet shockingly it sells at full price. This may be the only authentic NASCAR game in town, but Wii owners needing a Sprint Cup fix should avoid temptation and leave this problematic bare-bones racer on store shelves.