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The movie starts with Reese Bobby (Gary Cole) driving a pregnant Lucy Bobby (Jane Lynch) to the hospital in his Chevelle. He's going at 100+ mph but goes right past the hospital. They turn around, screech to a stop, and a squishy sound effect announce the arrival of the baby boy, Ricky.
In the next scene, Lucy takes a 5-year old Ricky grocery shopping. While waiting in the car, Ricky climbs in the front of his mother's station wagon and drives off (with his whiffle bat on the gas pedal), saying, "I wanna go fast!"
Flash forward another five years, and it's career day at Ricky's school. After a girl's waffle house manager father steps off, we're treated to a rather typical embarassingly-inappropriate-father-at-career-day scene, which ends with Reese telling his son "If you're not first, you're last" before being thrown out of the school. We also see the friendship between Ricky and Cal Naughton Jr.
Another few years go by, and Ricky and Cal find themselves working on the pit crew of the Dennit racing team, headed by Lucius Washington (Michael Clarke Duncan) and sponsored, apparently, by Laughing Clown Malt Liquor. One day, their driver walks out on a race, and with insistance from Cal, Ricky steps up to take his place, and their car finishes third (from last place). Afterwards, the dim-witted Bobby can barely talk in his interview (and even unable to make coherent hand gestures), but he's noticed by the senior Mr. Dennit (Pat Hingle), the team owner, much to his son, Larry (Greg Germann)'s chagrin.
We see a montage of Ricky winning race after race, picking up a trophy wife, Carley (Leslie Bibb), and numerous sponsors (in the way of hilarious commercial shoots) along the way. We also see the team giving Cal his own car (sponsored by Old Spice), and the two partnering up to win races with a "slingshot" maneuver that consistently lands Ricky in first and Cal in second. However, it's also around this time that Ricky's arrogance becomes evident, and Larry Dennit, who's since taken over the team from his father, is unhappy with Ricky because his behavior on the track is costing the team money from the sponsors.
Cut to Ricky's mansion with a Hummer, an Avalanche, and various other expensive cars out front. Carley calls everyone to the dining room for a meal she's been "slavin' over for hours": Domino's pizza, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and Taco Bell. Ricky starts saying a very lengthy grace (amusing scene, with some gags about Powerade commissioning him to mention it during every grace, and a drawn-out joke about Ricky's preference to pray to the baby Jesus). It's also during this scene that we see Ricky's sons, Walker (Houston Tumlin) and Texas Ranger/T.R. (Grayson Russell), whose rude behavior is condoned by their parents because "they're winners, and winners can do whatever they want".
One night, the whole team is celebrating at the Pit Stop, a drivers' bar. Cal asks Ricky if maybe he could let him win; an oblivious Ricky refuses. Suddenly, the music from the jukebox changes to jazz, and everyone starts complaining. They turn to see the sharply dressed Frenchman, Jean Girard (Sacha Baron Cohen--aka Ali G/Borat) at the Jukebox. Girard introduces himself--he is a Formula 1 driver--and they throw around some insults about each other's nations. Ricky tries to punch Girard, but Girard pins him down on the pool table in an armbar. In a hilarious scene, Girard tries to force him to say "I love crepes"--which is soon changed to the compromise which everyone else in the bar finds agreeable, "I love really thin pancakes--but Ricky refuses, and Girard snaps his arm. A fight nearly breaks out, but Larry Dennit steps in and announces that the Dennit team has hired Girard. Also at the scene is Gregory (Andy Richter), Girard's husband, whom he introduces to the Americans' disgust.
At the test track, Jean Girard breaks Ricky Bobby's track record, and the two exchange more insults. Ricky challenges Girard, and he saws off the cast on his arm to compete in the next race--again refusing Cal's request that he let him win once. Come race day, Ricky shows up with a giant Fig Newton sticker on his windshield, which he'd sold the advertising space for more money ("It's inconvenient and very dangerous, but boy I sure do love Fig Newtons."). During the race, Cal blows out his engine; Ricky refuses Lucius' advice to back off, and ends up wrecking his car. Here we see the "invisible fire" scene from the trailer.
Ricky is sent to the hospital, where it's discovered that he's suffered little in bodily injuries, but mentally he thinks he's paralyzed. Also we see an inexplicable scene of Cal telling Ricky that he once posed for Playgirl under the name "Mike Honcho". Lucius and Cal visit a recovering Ricky, and tries to convince him in vain that he's not paralyzed. Ricky ends up sticking a knife in his own leg, and this finally brings him out of it.
Ricky tries to get back on the track, but he's developed some kind of mental block; he hits 26 mph on the test track before getting out and having another "invisible fire" episode. NASCAR media declares his career over, Dennit fires Ricky (and Girard becomes the Dennit team's and NASCAR's flagship driver), and to make it worse, Carley leaves him for Cal, who moves into Ricky's house.
During the first weekend of joint custody, Ricky takes his foul-mouthed sons to his mother, Lucy. She works to tame their ways (by making them pick up highway litter, sing in the church choir, and do tai chi) while Ricky struggles with his new job, delivering pizzas for Hugalo's Pizza. After losing his delivery car and his license, Ricky--on a bicycle--delivers a pizza to a motel, where he meets Reese, his father, for the first time since career day. Reese is now a drunkard with only his Chevelle and a duffle bag full of underwear and marijuana to his name.
They later reunite again at Lucy's house (where it's revealed that Lucy had called Reese in the first place) and they convince Ricky to let Reese teach him how to overcome the fear that's ruined his career. Reese, while constantly chugging 24 oz cans of Laughing Clown, uses increasingly insane methods to teach Ricky, from putting a cougar in his car, to making him drive blindfolded, to taping "a kilo of Columbian Bam-Bam" (actually, a bag of Lucky Charms) under the car and forcing Ricky to drive away from the police afterwards. The last one finally works, and we see Ricky get his confidence back.
The entire family goes out to dinner at Applebee's, and we can see that Reese is very uncomfortable with his family finally settling into some normalcy. He causes a scene, gets himself thrown out, and basically declares that he simply can't have anything but his drifter lifestyle. Reese is seen hitchhiking off into the distance.
Meanwhile, Cal calls Ricky (the surround sound system in Ricky's old house makes Cal think the house is haunted), and they argue again. Ricky plays a NASCAR arcade game at a local bar, loses, and is thrashing at the video of Jean Girard taunting him on the screen when he's approached by Susan (Amy Adams), his old assistant who now has a marketing position with NASCAR.
They have a drink, and Ricky tells her he intends to not race in the upcoming Talladega 500 and instead become "a nice coke dealer". Susan berates him with various strange metaphors, making him realize that he needs to return to racing--for himself. They end up making out.
Ricky goes to see Jean Girard (who is having lunch with Elvis Costello and Mos Def), who then reveals that he'd came to America not to beat Ricky Bobby, but to be beaten by him so that he and Gregory could "retire to Stockholm and design a currency to be used by dogs and cats". However, Girard makes it clear that this does not mean he'll simply let Ricky win.
It's race day. Ricky meets up with Cal and apologizes for taking him for granted. Cal is confused, but continues to act tough. Reese finally picks up the two tickets Ricky saves for him at every race--only to attempt to scalp them away.
During the race, as Ricky begins to make his way to the front of the pack, Dennit orders Cal via radio to take Ricky out of the race. Instead, Cal sets Ricky up for the slingshot and propels him to the front of the pack. Dennit then has Ricky's replacement (in the Wonder Bread car) to take out Cal; he does, and a huge pileup results in only Ricky and Girard's cars remaining in the race.
The two are neck-to-neck, and in the last lap, their aggressive driving results in a drawn-out wreck (during which there's an Applebee's commercial break). The two get out and continue the race on foot! They dive at the finish line, and--surprise--Ricky wins it by an inch. Everyone cheers, and Ricky and Girard give each other their respects--and a French kiss that had a lot of people in the theater groaning.
The cup is awarded to Cal, who--placing at third--wins the race by default as bothe Ricky and Girard are disqualified for leaving their cars. Ricky, Lucy, Susan, and Ricky's sons meet Reese in the parking lot. They pile into Reese's Chevelle to go "get kicked out of Applebee's together".
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