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Merger of Petty team a wakeup call for team owners
NASCAR without a Petty Enterprises? It's an idea that competitors were struggling to comprehend last Thursday, in what should have been a celebratory atmosphere during Champions Week.

Jimmie Johnson was crowned the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion on Friday evening at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, but the mood in New York was tempered by reports that Petty Enterprises was in negotiations to merge with Gillett Evernham Motorsports, in a deal that could alter one of auto racing's most recognizable names. The Petty team has competed in NASCAR since the beginning, winning 10 championships and 268 races on the sport's premier circuit.

But the team has been dogged by sponsorship issues in recent years, to the point where its flagship No. 43 car -- the one Richard Petty drove to seven titles and 200 wins -- has yet to secure backing for the 2009 season.

"It's extremely disappointing to hear that's happening to the Pettys," four-time champion Jeff Gordon said. "Who doesn't want to have this sport with the Petty team in it? I hope they find a way to keep that. I don't know all the details, but I think it's important to our sport. But it's also a huge wake-up call to all of us, that none of us are immune to what could potentially happen."

It's not the first time the Petty team has been connected to merger speculation; the organization and Chip Ganassi's outfit reportedly had discussions to that effect last season, and Richard Petty has said countless times that his team has always been willing to listen to potential partners. The Pettys took on one of those last year, when the Boston Ventures private equity firm purchased controlling interest in the organization.

But the team retained the Petty name, of particular significance to the generations of Pettys who have established a franchise as well-known as almost any other in NASCAR. Keeping that name has always been very important to the Pettys -- and the idea that the name may be changed, or altered in some way from the Petty Enterprises everyone in the sport has known since 1949, was to competitors a sign of just how unforgiving the current economic climate can be.

"They're probably the biggest family name in NASCAR," two-time champion Tony Stewart said. "Obviously, it's a huge change in our sport. I'm kind of digesting it here as I've heard about it, but it just shows you how delicate the economy is right now, and how it's affecting racing." More at NASCAR.com

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