Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) is racing with his long time friends Bobby Swift and Cal Weathers (Kyle Petty). The three have mutual respect as they trade victories throughout the series. Whoever wins can count on getting pranked by the others, all in good fun. During one race, Bobby and Lightning are fighting toward the finish, when a car with a black body whizzes past them both, taking the checkered flag. Lightning watches the replay on the Jumbotron, seeing Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer) seemingly come from nowhere to beat him. Chick Hicks (Bob Peterson), Lightning's old racing opponent, is now an announcer for the Racing Sports Network.
He introduces his co-host, Natalie Certain (Kerry Washington), a statistical analysis. She explains that Jackson is part of a new generation of racers who use the latest technology to run faster than the veterans. At the next race, there are six more high-tech cars, and they race with precision, cutting off Lightning at each turn. Jackson wins again, with Lightning finishing third. With Jackson piling up more wins, the announcers spend all their time talking about him, and how he trains on the latest simulators. Lightning finds out that Cal Weathers and the rest of the old racers have decided to retire or been replaced. At the next race, it's Lightning alone against all next-gen racers. After the last pit stop, Lightning has the lead, but it doesn't take long for Jackson to catch up and overtake him.
Pushing himself, Lightning tries to catch up, until one of his tires blows out. Before he can react, he is skidding sideways, and then gets launched into a barrel roll. When he stops rolling, a hiss of smoke comes from his engine. A fire truck and tow truck arrive to help, looking for any signs of life. Four months later, Lightning is recovering back in Radiator Springs. He watches some old footage of his mentor, Doc Hudson (Paul Newman), when he had a similar wreck.
Lightning remembers his words, "You think I quit? They quit on me. When I got put back together, I went back expecting a big welcome. You know what they said? 'You're history. ' Moved right on to the next rookie in line. There was a lot left in me.
I never got a chance to show 'em. " Sally (Bonnie Hunt) greets him, and he tells her he doesn't want to be forced into retiring, like Doc, but he can't keep doing the same thing that hasn't been working. She tells him to try something new, and not be afraid of failure, but of never having the chance. Lightning's best friend Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) shows up, and Lightning tells him that he's ready to start training again. But first he needs to talk to Rusty (Tom Magliozzi) and Dusty (Ray Magliozzi), the owners of Rust-Eze, Lightning's sponsor. At Flo's V-8 Cafe, Lightning calls them and says that he wants to train like Jackson, and they say they're ahead of him, and they're opening the new Rust-eze Racing Center. Mack (John Ratzenberger) gets him into his trailer and drives him out to the center. When he arrives, Rusty and Dusty are there to greet him, and they tell him they sold Rust-eze to a car named Sterling (Nathan Fillion).
He greets Lightning and shows him a wall that has all his career highlights in pictures. He tells Lightning that it's time for a new look. He gives Lightning an electronic suit that can track his speed and vital signs. Showing Lightning around, Sterling takes him to the race simulator. Sterling introduces him to his trainer, Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo). Cruz is coaching cars on treadmills, coaxing them to reach their top speed. When she sees Lightning, she calls him her senior project.
Over the next few days, Cruz leads Lightning in aerobic exercises. Lightning follows along, but he just wants to try the simulator. Reluctantly, she starts it up, and Lightning drives on it, but soon he finds himself repeatedly hitting walls. Freeing himself from the treadmill's restraints, he shoots forward and crashes into the screen. After Sterling and Cruz talk about what to do, Lightning goes into his office. Sterling shows him an array of products with his face on them, saying this will be his legacy. Lightning asks what he means, and he tells him that he's not going to race him anymore.
Lightning begs for one more race, and says that if he doesn't win, he'll retire and sell all the merchandise he can. Sterling agrees, and allows him to train at Fireball Beach, but only if he takes Cruz with him. Cruz tells him that his body suit will track his speed, but she has to be close behind, because it has a short range. He takes off toward a pier, with a voice announcing his speed. "46, 63, out of range.
" Lightning looks back and sees Cruz still at the start, spinning her wheels. He goes back and tells her that on the beach, she has to ease into the throttle. They try again, and this time, Cruz gets stuck in softer sand. The next time, she gets stuck in shallow waves, then she spins out and does a doughnut. Trying again, she gets buried in the sand spraying off her tires.
He tells her to stick to compacted sand, and they try it again. This time, Cruz stops, not because she got stuck, but because she didn't want to hit a crab. Lightning sees that the sun is setting, so he takes her to the start for one more try. "Now, you're gonna take off slow, to let your tires grab," he says, "and pick a straight line on the sand, so you don't spin out. And all the crabbies have gone night-night.
" This time, she's able to keep up, and when he finishes, she tells him his top speed was 198, still slower than Jackson. Looking at a road sign, Lightning sees Thunder Hollow, which has a dirt track. He decides he needs to do some real racing, but if the press finds out, they'd be all over him. Mack tells him that he's a master of disguise. At the speedway, Mack spins his tires in mud, covering Lightning and making him unrecognizable. Cruz joins him at the starting line to track his speed, and then they hear an announcement over the PA welcoming everyone to the Crazy Eight Demolition Derby. Lightning and Cruz try to slip out quietly, but find the gate shut. They're soon joined by Miss Fritter (Lea DeLaria), a huge school bus with chain link fencing around the outside.
The derby starts, and all the other cars start crashing into each other, with Lightning and Cruz barely avoiding getting hit. Miss Fritter is about to ram Cruz, but Lightning pushes her out of the way just in time, and Miss Fritter's momentum causes her to flip on her side. Miss Fritter had grazed Lightning's tire on the way by, causing him to get stuck. She uprights herself and bears down on him. At the last second, he gets his tires to grip and speeds out of the way, making her crash.
Cruz is the only undamaged car left, so she is declared the winner. A water truck comes to Miss Fritter's aid, but Cruz gets in the way, causing it to tip over and splash water everywhere. The mud on Lightning is washed away, revealing his identity to the crowd. Suddenly, cameras flash from everywhere. Cruz and Lightning are back in Mack's trailer, with Cruz next to a large trophy. She tries to hide the fact that she's giddy about having won a race. Lightning yells at her that he was supposed to get faster so he could win a real race, but he hasn't, because he had to spend the whole week taking care of her. He says that the next race is his last chance, something she wouldn't understand because she isn't a racer.
She tells Mack to pull over, and then gets out of the trailer. She asks Lightning if he thinks she dreamed of becoming a trainer. She says she wanted to become a racer her whole life because of him. And then, when she got to her first race, she saw all the other cars looking bigger, stronger and more confident. She realized she didn't belong, and so she left.
She asks him how he felt at his first race, and he says he never thought he couldn't do it. She says she wished she knew how that felt, and she drives off back to the center. Mack spends the night sleeping under an overpass, with Lightning watching TV in the trailer. Footage from the demolition derby gets played. Natalie reports that Jackson set a new record for the fastest lap in a race. Sterling says that Lightning will race as planned. Natalie says that Jackson is the heavy favorite to win. Lightning calls up Mater and tells him that he really wishes he could talk to Doc Hudson and get some good advice.
Mater replies that nobody knew more about racing than Doc, except the truck who taught him. The next morning, Mack catches up to Cruz, and Lightning comes out. She tells him that she's resigning as his trainer, and he asks her to join him as he looks for Smokey (Chris Cooper), Doc's trainer. Arriving at Doc's hometown, they find an old racetrack and they take a lap. Smokey sees them and introduces himself, and leads them into a bar. All the old cars are talking about Doc's racing days, and Lightning says he wished he could've seen Doc so happy. Smokey and Lightning head outside, and Lightning says if he doesn't win, he'll never race again, and he doesn't want what happened to Doc to happen to him.
Smokey tells him that after Doc's big wreck, he holed himself up in Radiator Springs, cutting off all contact. But one day, Smokey started getting letters from Doc, all about the young rookie that he started coaching. Rolling into Smokey's garage, Lightning finds a whole wall of pictures of himself and Doc together. Smokey tells him that racing wasn't the best part of Doc's life, coaching him was. Smokey says that Doc saw something in Lightning that he himself never saw.
He asks if Lightning's ready to find it, and he says yes. Smokey says that Lightning will never be faster than Jackson, but he can be smarter. He says he heard that Lightning was in a demolition derby, but doesn't have a scratch on him. He says that's what Lightning can do when he's not overthinking. Cruz is put on a lift and given a new spoiler and racing tires, and has "Storm 2. 0" duct taped on her sides. Since Lightning had missed qualifiers, he would be starting at the back, with Jackson at the front. Cruz and Lightning take their positions at the starting line, and Smokey tells him he has three laps to catch up to her.
The first time they try, Cruz beats him easily. Trying a different approach, he has them drive on an old country road, tossing bales of hay at them along the way. One bale smacks Lightning in the face. At another session, Smokey has them in a field, and then Smokey revs his engine, startling a group of tractors and causing them to scurry in every direction. Lightning and Cruz try to duck and dodge the best they can. Repeating the racing exercise, Lightning still can't catch up to Cruz.
Lightning and Cruz go to the drive-in to watch some old racing footage of Doc. He sees Doc drafting behind another car, and then pulling ahead. Smokey tells him he'll have to look for opportunities like that. When a car tries to run Doc into the wall, he drives up the wall and flips over the top of the other car, landing on the other side and taking the lead. They do the tractor drill again, and this time Lightning smoothly sails through the gaps between the tractors. Doing the hay bale drill, Lightning effortlessly dodges the bales. Smokey introduces them to the last drill, one they used when they were running moonshine.
They have to drive through a forest at night with no lights on. At first, Lightning and Cruz are tentative, slowly making their way past the trees. They gain confidence and start to speed up, weaving between the trees. Brushing up against them, Lightning's body suit gets ripped off. Soon they start passing Smokey and the rest of the legends. Repeating the racing exercise one last time before the race, Lightning starts drafting behind Cruz, and then he pulls out in front of her.
She takes back the lead, and he pulls ahead again. Neck and neck down the final stretch, Lightning gives it one last burst of speed and pulls in front, but then she takes the lead for good at the last second. She celebrates wildly, forgetting what it means for him. Sheepishly, he says they'd better head for the race in Florida.
At the race, Lightning lines up in the last position, and then he hears Smokey's voice on his headset. The race starts, and Lightning starts passing the other racers. Cruz is also in the pits, and she reminds Lightning about the three-lap rule. Sterling rolls up to Cruz and tells her to leave, and take off the spoiler and racing tires she still had.
There's a wreck on the track, and Lightning pulls into the pits, telling Smokey that he needs Cruz back. She pulls in, and he tells the crew to get her set up, since he's going to have her finish the race for him. Nervously, Cruz pulls out of the pits and joins the rest of the cars, still under caution. When the green flag comes out, Cruz tries to accelerate, but her tires don't grip at first. Lightning repeats what he told her on the beach. "Take off slow, and let your tires grab. " She slowly accelerates, gaining speed.
At the first turn, she starts to skid. "Pick a line, so you don't spin out. All the crabbies have gone night-night. " Getting more confident, Cruz pulls up behind the pack of racers. Thinking of the tractor exercise, she picks her way between the racers, quickly moving up. In the announcers' booth, Natalie says that she doesn't have any stats on Lightning's replacement, except that she recently won a demolition derby.
Steadily gaining confidence, Cruz moves into the top ten. Drafting behind another car, she swerves out and pulls in front, taking third place. Jackson lets the second place car pass him, and then pulls alongside her. He tells her that she can play dress-up all she wants, but she'll never be a racer.
He puts on speed, quickly retaking the lead. Lightning tells her to believe in herself, and that she is a racer. With determination, she goes past the second car, pulling right behind Jackson. The white flag comes out, signaling the last lap. Jackson tries to throw Cruz off by swerving, but she matches his every move.
Approaching the finish line, she pulls to the outside, but he rams her into the wall. Remembering what she saw Doc do, she drives up the wall and flips over Jackson, pulling ahead and taking the checkered flag. She does doughnuts in the infield as the crowd loudly chants her name. Pulling into the pits, she meets back up with Lightning. Sterling pulls up to her and tells her that she would make a great racer on his team.
She tells him that she'd never race for him, and Tex Dinoco asks her if she'd like to race for him. Lightning looks at the Jumbotron and sees his name and Cruz's as the winner of the race. Sally asks him if that means he's going to keep racing, and he says he will, but there's something he needs to do first. Back at Radiator Springs, Cruz and Lightning show off their new looks. She has 51 painted on her side, Doc Hudson's old number, and he has "The Fabulous Lightning McQueen" painted on him. Tex Dinoco pulls up and tells them that he just bought Rust-eze, and now Lightning will be Cruz's pit chief. Driving up to Willy's Butte, they take their places at the starting line. At the drop of the flag, they take off racing, just as Lightning and Doc used to.
Lightning feels that Doc is close by, and he knows he's exactly where he belongs..