By MIKE HARRIS
AP Auto Racing Writer
CORAL GABLES, Fla. -- When it comes to good times and bad times, NASCAR's King has seen it all.
With the United States facing the worst economic downturn since the Depression and the possible collapse of the domestic auto industry, Richard Petty sees hard times on the horizon for his sport.
And he's convinced NASCAR will survive.
Rex White, who won his only championship in 1960 long before NASCAR's big paydays, stressed that money has always been a problem for teams -- especially the have-nots.
"We had a problem with money every day, every week, with meeting payroll or winning enough money to race on and being able to finance the car and buy the pieces and parts that you need to go there and win the race," White said Thursday. "So money is always a big problem when you race. Racing has never really paid its way properly maybe until today. Not even today. Without the sponsors, they couldn't even race today."
Seven-time points champion Petty agreed it's sponsorship woes, moreso than the automakers' angst, that worry a midpack team such as Petty Enterprises.
The team's signature No. 43 car has only partial sponsorship for 2009.
"Back in the 70s, we depended entirely on the technology that the factories had," Petty said. "The teams now have started hiring their own engineers and doing a bunch of stuff. ... If the factories all went home, the general public up in the grandstand probably wouldn't know the difference, if we had sponsorship for the cars."
Petty doesn't deny the team has talked about a possible merger. On Wednesday, Dale Earnhardt Inc. and Chip Ganassi Racing announced they will combine teams next season.
Earlier this year, Petty sold majority ownership in Petty Enterprises, the team started by his father more than 50 years ago, to Boston Ventures, an investment banking firm.
"We talk to everybody about everything that we've been talking about, and we're still standing here independent," Petty said. "But we're not wanting to take on somebody else's bad because we have enough of our own."
Petty and White were two of several former champions who gathered Thursday to celebrate the season's final week, with Jimmie Johnson trying to wrap up a record-tying third straight Sprint Cup title Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
None of the champions imagined a future that doesn't include NASCAR.
"I think it'll go on, and NASCAR will survive it because people that are race fans, they'll come to see some kind of racing," White said. "It might not be the same as it is today, but racing will continue on."
But former champions Dale Jarrett and Darrell Waltrip acknowledged the nation's economic woes are bound to cause some major changes in the sport.
"Right now, you're not seeing the effects of the economy so much because a lot of the things that are happening right now were already budgeted and paid for," Waltrip said. "It's next year when we're going to see the problems. I think when we get to Daytona (in February) and beyond, that's when we're going to see people that don't have jobs, they can't charge stuff on their credit cars. I think that's when we're going to really see a negative effect on the sport."
Fans aren't the only ones who might have to change their spending habits.
Jarrett suggested the days of teams getting on a private jet and flying to tracks might be coming to an end.
"I'm talking about crew members that have no idea what it's like to get in a van and drive to Dover, Del., for the races," Jarrett said. "Hopefully, we can just do some cutbacks until things get a little bit better, and we don't lose any of the manufacturers."
The Sprint Cup series currently features Chevrolet, Ford, Dodge and Toyota vehicles.
No matter the possible cutbacks, 2004 champion Kurt Busch is focused on the long term, calling today's troubles "a blip in the road."
"Listening to what Richard says, it's given me the perception that he's been through a category 5 hurricane, survived it and he's seen the series and NASCAR get hit by storms and survive it," Busch said. "Teams will have to scale back, but the series will survive. And we'll still be here to collect a trophy on Sunday."