Lightning McQueen is the protagonist in Cars and the deuteragonist in Cars 2. He returns as the protagonist in Cars 3.
Lightning is a red racecar sponsored by Rust-eze Medicated Bumper Ointment ("With Just a Little Rust-eze, you can look like Lightning McQueen!"). He is #95 in the movie, and at the beginning of the movie, he is racing his first Piston Cup race The Dinoco 400, and is winning.
At the end of the film, he lost the race out of good intentions, and got a new paint job, but still sponsored by Rust-eze, although at the beginning of the film, he wanted a Dinoco sponsorship.
Number 95 Lightning McQueen is still a hotshot racecar, but his rookie days are past him. Now a permanent resident of Radiator Springs, Lightning has become a bona fide worldwide celebrity as winner of four Piston Cups. After his latest win, Lightning returns home to enjoy life in the slow lane for a while with sweetheart Sally, best friend Mater and the rest of his Radiator Springs family. His off-season is unexpectedly cut short when Mater inadvertently prompts Lightning to enter the World Grand Prix, a high profile, three-part exhibition race that will take him around the globe. With a fresh custom paint job and real, working headlights, Lightning sets off to Japan, Italy and England with Mater in tow for the adventure of a lifetime. But competing against the fastest cars in the world tests more than his racing skills when Lightning realizes his wide-eyed best friend may not be the pit chief nor ambassador he needs to navigate the unfamiliar international terrain.
McQueen returns in Cars 3 as the protagonist. He has struck up friendships with fellow racers Cal Weathers - who is now racing for Dinoco with his uncle Strip "The King" Weathers as his crew chief - and Bobby Swift. Tex Dinoco would still like McQueen to race for him, even courting him within earshot of Cal. During the season, a newcomer named Jackson Storm seemingly comes out of nowhere and wins. McQueen later congratulates him only for Storm to state it was an honor to "finally beat [him]", later telling his crew that he "struck a nerve", showing that he likes to use emotional manipulation to get into his opponents' heads. Also, Storm uses the latest technology to train, making him a highly-skilled precision racer.
The season goes on with Storm continuing to rack up wins, and more advanced, rookie racers begin supplanting the older generation. Cal chooses to retire, telling McQueen how much he valued their friendship. Bobby is fired by his sponsor and replaced with Danny Swervez. On the next race, McQueen gets increasingly desperate to win, but fortunately Guido is still fast at pit stops and gets him back out, with his girlfriend Sally Carrera and best friend Mater cheering him on. Storm continues to mock him on the track, passing him. Swervez and Chase Racelott - another next-gen racer - also pass McQueen. Lightning pushes himself as hard as he can, but his right rear tire blows out and he suffers a major crash. Sally, Mater, Guido and Luigi go out to see if he's okay while emergency responders check on him.
Four months later, McQueen has recovered and is back in Radiator Springs. He's in Doc's old garage watching footage of the crash that ended his career. Sally then checks on him. Lightning doesn't want to end up like Doc who was forced to retire. Sally tells him not to fear failure, reminding him that he has a chance. She resorts to some reverse psychology to get him going. McQueen tells all his friends he intends to keep racing. After Ramone re-paints McQueen in his original racing color scheme, Mack takes him, Guido and Luigi to the new Rust-eze Racing Center. He's surprised to learn that Dusty and Rusty sold Rust-eze to billionaire Sterling, who appears to be a big fan. He has McQueen fitted with a new suit which tracks his speed and vital signs. Sterling shows off all the high-tech training equipment, including the most advanced simulator available.
McQueen is introduced to Cruz Ramirez, a friendly and enthusiastic trainer who first riles McQueen up by saying he's an imposter, but this was quickly shown as a motivational tactic. Cruz trains McQueen, who's itching to try the simulator. Unfortunately, it goes badly when McQueen rams into various objects, catches on fire, flies off the restraints and crashes into the screen. Sterling then calls him into his office, showing him lots of merchandise with his likeness. McQueen realizes that Sterling doesn't want him racing anymore, so he makes a wager: if McQueen wins his next race, he retires whenever he wants; if not, he'll sell all the merchandise he can. McQueen, Guido, Luigi, and Mack head to Fireball Beach to train, with Cruz following them to help.
Cruz will run alongside him using her digital assistant Hamilton to gauge his top speed, but will have to stay very close. This proves easier said than done since Cruz doesn't know how to race on sand. It takes until sunset to get it right. McQueen's top speed is gauged at 198 mph, which is still slower than Storm. He decides to head to Thunder Hollow which has a dirt track, but when Luigi gets worried about the press finding him there, Mack assures him he can give McQueen a disguise.
When they get there, McQueen is covered in mud to mask his appearance, going by the name Chester Whipplefilter. They realize too late that it's a Demolition Derby, and Cruz now has to take part too. The champion is a monster school bus named Miss Fritter. Both McQueen and Cruz barely avoid getting hit, but McQueen has to protect Cruz from Fritter. Cruz wins the derby, but accidentally trips a water truck over and inadvertently washes McQueen off, blowing his cover.
An angry McQueen lashes out at Cruz in Mack's trailer, complaining that he spent the entire day having to take care of her. He states that he has to win his next race to continue in the sport, saying she wouldn't understand since she's not a racer. Feeling hurt by McQueen, Cruz orders Mack to pull over and angrily snaps back at Lightning. She never wanted to be a trainer, but a racer like him. She got to her first race, but felt she didn't belong and left. Lightning admits - at Cruz's urging - that he never felt he didn't belong. She wishes she knew what that felt like. Cruz drives off on her own.
Mack spends the night sleeping under a bridge while McQueen watches TV. Footage of the demolition derby plays. Also, analyst Natalie Certain reports that Storm has set a new record for fastest lap, making him the heavy favorite at 95.2%. McQueen calls Mater who fortunately was still awake. Mater initially can't come up with good advice until McQueen says he wishes he could talk to Doc again. Mater makes an off-handed comment that the car who taught Doc would know more about racing than him. With that, McQueen catches up to Cruz and convinces her to come with him to Doc's hometown of Thomasville.
Once arriving, Lightning and Cruz get a look at the dirt track where Doc used to race. They meet Doc's mentor Smokey, who takes them to a bar with fellow racing legends River Scott, Junior Johnson, and Louise Nash. McQueen tells Smokey that he wishes he could've seen Doc during his racing days when he was at his happiest. Smokey tells McQueen that he never heard from Doc after he moved to Radiator Springs, but one day he started getting letters from him. Smokey shows McQueen a wall with pictures of McQueen and Doc, revealing that coaching Lightning was the happiest time of his life. Smokey tells him he can't be faster than Storm, but he can be smarter than him, as evidenced by making it through the derby without a scratch.
Since McQueen missed the qualifiers, he'll have to start from behind and Storm will start in front. Cruz has a spoiler installed and black tape is used to make her resemble Storm so she can be a "sparring partner" for McQueen. The two will race on the speedway with the latter only having three laps to overtake her, but he can't. They use other techniques to train: dodging thrown bales of hay and other obstacles, maneuvering through a tractor stampede, and driving through a forest at night without their headlights on. The two get the hang of the exercises. While night driving, McQueen's suit gets torn off by the trees, giving him back his original racing colors.
During this, Lightning and Cruz watch old footage of Doc's races. They see that he used the drafting technique to gain speed and see him use the barricade to flip over another car who tried to ram him into the wall. On their final day of training, McQueen manages to pull ahead on the speedway, but Cruz still wins. They have to head to Florida for the race.
While Sheriff, Lizzie, and Red stayed behind, the rest of Radiator Springs arrived in Florida to cheer McQueen on, with Smokey acting as his crew chief. McQueen starts out last but gains ground. Sterling orders Cruz to leave. This doesn't sit well with McQueen, who hears the conversation, and wants her back. After a wreck occurs, Lightning makes the call that Cruz will finish the race for him. She is quickly prepared by Ramone, Luigi, and Guido while Mater keeps Sterling away. Cruz officially joins the race with the #95 but she's nervous. McQueen relays advice to her but takes over as her crew chief. Cruz puts all the training to great use and makes it near the top. While Storm is in first, he purposely falls back to second place as Cruz makes it to third place. He resorts to psychological warfare against her but McQueen tells her Storm sees her as a threat or he wouldn't be using such tactics.
The final lap comes. Cruz is right behind Storm who can't shake her. Storm rams her into the wall but she uses Doc's flipping move to escape and take the lead. Cruz wins the race to the delight of the crowd!
Everyone congratulates her on the win. Sterling then reverses fields and tries to convince Cruz to race for him, but she turns him down flat. Tex makes her an offer to be the next racer for Dinoco, which Cruz accepts. McQueen is declared a co-winner since he started the race with the #95. McQueen decides he wants to keep racing, but he has something to do first.
Back in Radiator Springs, Cruz now sports the Dinoco logo as well as the #51, carrying on Doc's legacy. Lightning has been painted the same blue shade as Doc and now brands himself as the "Fabulous Lightning McQueen", becoming her crew chief. Rust-Eze has been bought by Tex as well. In a way, Lightning has achieved an old dream of racing for Dinoco. With all their friends watching, the two have a race around Willy's Butte.
- Make model: Handmade
- Top speed: 200 mph
- Zero to 60: 3.2 seconds
- Engine: V-8
- Horsepower: 750
- Hometown: Radiotor Springs, Caburator Canyon
- His racing number, "95" is a reference to the year 1995, when Pixar's first feature-length film,Toy Story was released. Originally, his number was going to be 57, which is the year John Lasseter was born.
- Lightning's last name "McQueen" is a reference to Glenn McQueen, a supervising animator at Pixar who passed away in 2002.
- In the first official teaser trailer of Cars 2, for unknown reasons, Lightning McQueen has on his Rust-eze customization.
- In Toy Story 3 in the Caterpillar Room at Sunnyside Daycare, you can see one of the kids with a white T-shirt with red sleeves and has in the middle of the shirt the 95 racing number with the lightning bolt of Lightning McQueen. A toy similar to Lightning can also be seen.
- Lightning's back bumper is yellow. This follows NASCAR's tradition of putting yellow rookie stripes on rookie drivers' cars.
- Lightning's design was inspired by stock cars, and a more curvaceous Le Mans endurance racers (Ford GT40)
- After Lightning's redesign in Cars 2, he has working headlights instead of stickers.
- In Tokyo an advertisement for a vaccum cleaner named "Lightning McClean" is seen in Cars 2.
- In a Star Wars version of Cars, McQueen appears as a Luke Skywalker die-cast.
- Lightning McQueen He was portrayed by Owen Wilson, who previously played John in Marley & Me, Hansel in Zoolander and Zoolander 2, Reggie from Free Birds, Jedediah Smith from Night at the Museum Battle of the Smithsonianand Night at the Museum, Ricky from The Hero of Color City and Coach Skip from Fantastic Mr. Fox.