By JENNA FRYER
AP Auto Racing Writer
NEW YORK -- Petty Enterprises is in discussions to merge its storied franchise with Gillett Evernham Motorsports, The Associated Press has learned.
Multiple people familiar with the talks told the AP on Thursday that the two teams were discussing a deal that would merge Petty's famed No. 43 Dodge with GEM to become a four-car operation. They requested anonymity because the negotiations are ongoing.
SI.com first reported that Petty Enterprises' top operation will not return in 2009. But David Zucker, CEO of Petty Enterprises, said the report was "not accurate."
He would not discuss a potential merger. "We're not going to comment on rumors and speculation," he said.
Petty, the team founded by seven-time series champion Richard Petty, has no full-time sponsorship lined up for next season. The team fields its flagship No. 43 for 2000 NASCAR champion Bobby Labonte and a second car that Chad McCumbee and Kyle Petty shared this season. Kyle Petty was expected to have a minimal role -- if any -- with the organization next season.
Robbie Loomis, vice president of Petty Enterprises, told the AP nothing has changed with the organization, and the team is continuing to talk to potential partners.
"We're in the same place we were a month ago, when everyone was saying we were going to merge with (Chip) Ganassi," Loomis said. "We're still talking to everybody and seeing what's out there."
Ganassi, which like Petty fields Dodges, instead merged with Chevrolet-backed Dale Earnhardt Inc. late last month.
Drew Brown, a spokesman for Gillett Evernham, said the team would not comment on any potential merger with another team. But it's no secret that majority owner George Gillett Jr. has canvassed the industry looking for a partner that would help his team expand to the NASCAR maximum four cars.
Gillett is believed to have had earlier discussions with Toyota teams Bill Davis Racing and Michael Waltrip Racing, as well as Ganassi. Earlier this year he terminated an agreement with Robby Gordon that would have brought Gordon into his organization as a fourth car.
As potential deals failed to develop, Gillett turned his attention to struggling Petty Enterprises. Richard Petty in June sold majority interest of the family-run team to private equity firm Boston Ventures, which assumed day-to-day control of the 60-year-old operation.
But the new leadership has yet to put Petty Enterprises on solid footing, largely because the economic crisis has made sponsorship very difficult to secure. Numerous teams have reduced their staffs since the Nov. 18 season finale, and Petty laid off 30 employees last month.
Now, if a merger with Gillett goes through, a team that has been in NASCAR since 1949 may cease to exist as it has been known.
"You think of Petty in NASCAR, and you think it's something that will always be together," said four-time series champion Jeff Gordon. "It's something that we all have to take a close look at because this is a big business now. It takes a great team effort on the track to be competitive, but it takes that same amount of effort in the marketing, in the business structure of how you run your team, operate your team and keep it funded and keep it strong.
"It's really unfortunate to see those guys have to do that. But it's a tough economic time."
Leaders from The Big Three automakers asked Congress on Thursday for a $34 billion rescue package they say they need to survive, and United Auto Worker union President Ron Gettelfinger warned that in the absence of action by Congress, General Motors could fold by the end of the month.
Chrysler, Ford and GM -- along with Japanese automaker Toyota -- heavily support race teams throughout NASCAR, and many team owners are worried about the ripple effects of a manufacturer pullback or pullout.
Kevin Harvick, who drives a Chevrolet for Richard Childress Racing and fields the make out of his own Kevin Harvick Inc., noted the entire industry is doing everything it can to show its support for the automakers.
"You don't see any other athletes in any sport caring about their futures the way this sport does," Harvick said.
Team owner Rick Hendrick, who just helped GM win its 32nd NASCAR manufacturer's championship, said he doesn't expect any manufacturers to end their involvement in the sport as long as they are in business.
"I think they'll always, as long as there's Chevrolet and GM, they'll be in the sport in some fashion," he said. "It works too well for them. It's part of their DNA. If it's a slowdown, we just have to adjust. When things pick up, they'll be back. It's too much of the fabric of Chevrolet and Ford."