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Keeping King Richard Petty in NASCAR

January 8, 2009 |  7:15 pm

Richard Petty, left, stands next to 2008 NASCAR Sprint Cup Champion Jimmie Johnson before last year's season finale Nov. 16 at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Florida.

Richard Petty's NASCAR team lost its competitive edge years ago. But Petty himself is still among stock car racing's most popular figures and nearly synonymous with the sport -- a popularity not lost on businessman George Gillett.

Gillett, in announcing today that his Gillett Evernham Motorsports team agreed in principle to merge with Petty Holdings, said he would fulfill what many NASCAR observers had demanded in recent weeks: That no matter what happened to Petty's team, the sport needed to keep Petty himself -- known simply as "The King" in NASCAR -- front and center with fans.

"We plan to keep the Petty name in the forefront of NASCAR," said Gillett, who also has ownership stakes in the NHL's Montreal Canadiens and the Liverpool soccer team in the English Premier League. "Our goal is to get the cowboy hat and sunglasses back in victory lane."

Petty, 71, drove the No. 43 car to a record 200 victories and seven championships, then saw his team lapse into mediocrity since its last Cup victory in 1999. The poor economy exacerbated matters as Petty struggled to secure the corporate sponsors that are the lifeblood of NASCAR.

He sold control of the team last year to Boston Ventures, an investment firm, to raise cash, but that wasn't enough to prevent the team from having to seek yet another partner to survive.

Gillett and Petty said they hope to finalize their merger by Feb. 1 and plan to field four cars in the Sprint Cup Series this year. The teams did not identify the drivers for each car, but they probably would be driven by GEM drivers Kasey Kahne, Reed Sorenson and Elliott Sadler, along with a driver yet to be named for the No. 43. (Bobby Labonte, who drove the Petty car last year, left the team last month.) But there also has been speculation that Sadler might lose his ride to A.J. Allmendinger.

Regardless, Petty said: "I'm going to be at the track every weekend and really involved with the teams and drivers back at the shop. Nothing is going to change for me."

-- Jim Peltz

Photo: NASCAR legend Richard Petty, left, stands next to 2008 NASCAR Sprint Cup Champion Jimmie Johnson before last year's season finale Nov. 16 at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Florida. Credit: Terry Renna / Associated Press

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