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Petty Enterprises to merge with Dodge owner Gillett

SI.com has learned that Petty Enterprises two-car team will not return in 2009. The sole remaining organization from NASCAR's inaugural Cup season in 1949 will instead merge with fellow Dodge owner George Gillett. The No. 43 car once driven by "King" Richard in all but three of his 200 Sprint Cup victories will be added to the Gillett stable as a fourth car, while the No. 45 car once driven by second- and third-generation drivers Kyle and Adam Petty will cease to exist. Official word of the move is pending and could come as early as this evening.

No word on the future association with Petty Enterprises and Boston Ventures, although a source tells SI.com that Boston Ventures may maintain some involvement in the Richard Petty Driving Experience. Richard Petty's role in the new organization is also unclear, although the alcohol sponsorship of Kasey Kahne's Budweiser team could present a potential hurdle. The Pettys never supported alcohol sponsorship in their organization, refusing to run even the small NASCAR-sponsored decals mandated for every car in the field.

NASCAR has not been immune to the worldwide economic downturn, with over 500 jobs already lost due to mergers or teams closing up shop. This closure, however, marks the most high-profile organization to date that's been forced to change course for 2009.

Many of the sport's big-name drivers expressed sadness and surprise at the move.

"They're probably the biggest family name in NASCAR, so it's a huge change in our sport," Tony Stewart said in the midst of Champion's Week festivities in New York City. "It just shows you how delicate the economy is and how it's affecting racing. It makes you think it's not really a good time to be a new car owner in the series."

"It's really tough," added Jeff Burton. "It's sad ... if you look back on our sport, there are lots of teams and car owners that built this sport that aren't around anymore. That's scary."

But not everyone was convinced Petty's woes were purely economic. Despite a series-high 268 wins over 60 years of competition, the team is nine years removed from its last win and had just four top 5 finishes in the last seven seasons. Despite hiring household names like 2000 Cup champ Bobby Labonte and championship crew chief Robbie Loomis in recent years, no Petty car has been a threat for the Chase in all five years of its existence.

"I think you see a lot of owners who don't keep up with the sport and keep up with the times," said Kevin Harvick. "And in my opinion, that's something that's happened more there than blaming it on the economy. That's the easy way out."

The team had taken some steps in recent years to step up its level of competition, moving from its longtime home in Level Cross to a shop in Concord, N.C., in 2008 -- just outside the racing hub of Charlotte. Then, in June the company announced investor Boston Ventures had purchased an undisclosed stake in the team, infusing some much-needed cash many thought would allow PE to survive the economic downturn.

Just this week, Petty CEO David Zucker had announced the team would run one full-time car in 2009 with a second car, part-time, for Chad McCumbee pending sponsorship. But there were other, more ominous signs of problems within the Petty camp. Kyle Petty was told not to return as a full-time driver in 2009, a sign of discord within an organization he was helping run just 12 months earlier. Instead, the team was hoping a turn to the youth of McCumbee combined with the veteran influence of Labonte -- who signed a contract extension through 2012 -- would be enough to guide the organization through its rebuilding efforts.

Unfortunately, it appears both time and money ran out.

"Once the ball starts rolling down, it's hard to stop it," Burton said, who found himself in a situation with Roush in 2004 where he lacked sponsorship. "Your funding gets less, the willingness of employees becomes less, it's hard to slow that down. Obviously, the Pettys weren't really able to slow that down.

"I really believe when they hired Bobby Labonte, Robbie Loomis, I think they took a step in the right direction. And I think they were rebuilding and getting stronger, but that's come at a time when there's no patience. The economic situation that we're in today, there's just going to be no patience for it. And that's a sad thing."

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