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A quick glance at my calendar will reveal all the upcoming dates for the Arcadia demolition derby — but nothing about NASCAR.

A boyhood trip to the local stock car track taught me this: racing is boring, but crashing is fun. That’s why I go to Arcadia every chance I get and why I lean toward wild driving games like "Burnout: Paradise."

However, with Jeff Gordon staring at me from the cover of EA Sports’ "NASCAR 09" and promising to show me the ropes, I thought it might be time to be enlightened.

Gordon is frequently on screen, explaining the E-rated game’s features and offering advice on driving and career options. Perhaps a real NASCAR fan would find his commentary a bit simplistic, but I found it very helpful and encouraging.

The first step for the uninitiated should be the Sprint Driver Challenges. In these mini-games, you learn the finer points of NASCAR and its video game offspring. Maintaining speed, pulling in to pit areas and drafting are among the techniques you’ll need to master before trying the full-blown racing modes.

Of course I ignored Gordon’s advice in my first outing and went straight to the races. I got smoked.

The game offers two driving modes: normal and pro. However, even the more-forgiving normal mode is pretty tough for a nube. Success in NASCAR demands perfect steering, positioning and timing. This also applies in the game, even in the normal mode. If you haven’t honed these skills, your only hope is to change the settings so you can run other drivers off the track — but that’s not NASCAR.

Once you’re comfortable on the track, it’s time to try the career mode, in which you can race against NASCAR’s big stars in the Craftsman Truck Series, Nationwide Series and Sprint Series. Doing well in these earns you reputation points that result in better sponsors.

The graphics are good, although you don’t really get much of a chance to appreciate them at 140 mph. The sound ... well, it’s NASCAR, so it’s a load roar. The music is good, although the selection seems a bit limited.

EA Sports makes a big deal about the ability to customize your car’s paint job. This requires downloading a template, creating a design in a computer graphics program and then importing it into the game. It’s an interesting concept, but probably will appeal only to big-time fans.

"NASCAR 09" makes some decent strides toward attracting casual gamers. However, I’m not canceling my next trip to Arcadia.

Platforms: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 2On the Web: www.easports.com/nascar09/


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