Conclusion: Although my review flips the scores of the two games from that of conventional wisdom, I think you would be doing yourself a disservice to buy one or the other without renting them both first. You might even go with Thunder for its strengths and that's fine. I'm more of a purist than many and I realize my tastes lean towards depth and realism rather than more of what I feel are superficial features. Don't buy EA's game just because it's from EA.
Excerpt: How good of graphics can you actually get when all you have to portray is a bunch of concrete, and a few grandstands? Well, Infogrames certainly produced a masterpiece with NASCAR Heat 2002's exquisite visuals. No really, concrete has never looked better. Tire marks have never looked 'rubberier', and you can tell what the pit crew is actually doing.
Excerpt: NASCAR Heat 2002 features an interesting blend of racing styles. It can feel like a simulation while at the same time creating the illusion of an arcade racer. The physics of the game definitely lean toward the simulation side, but the weak damage model spoils the feeling of a true sim and opens the game up for the arcade-style crowd.
Conclusion: (which will affect the number of pit stops you need to make or the level of rage that a significant other spews at you for playing for so long) to time of day. Fourth is the Winston Cup Championship series, where you are tossed right into the thick of things and have to battle your way up the ladder. Finally, my personal favorite is the Head to Head where you get to humiliate and embarrass your (former) closest friends in a race.