When Boston Ventures purchased Petty Enterprises earlier this year, Richard Petty thought the influx of cash would help his ailing two-team operation to once again become competitive in the Cup Series. Petty wasn’t by himself in this belief, also thinking this would happen was Bobby Labonte, the driver of Richard’s famed No. 43 Dodge. Labonte signed an extension with Petty Enterprises for four additional years even though the organization had just lost its primary sponsor, General Mills.
When Labonte signed on with Petty after the 2005 season, everyone within the organization thought that was one of the last pieces of the puzzle needed to once again make Petty Enterprises competitive on race day. After all, Labonte had finished in the top 10 in points seven times in his career including winning the 2000 title. He also had 21 wins in his career and was always considered a threat to win at any track. Petty hadn’t visited victory lane since 1999, so the thought of having a driver with the kind of credentials of Labonte had everyone thinking better days were just around the corner.
Sadly, those days never did materialize for Petty and Labonte and now the two have decided to part ways as both try and maintain a presence in the sport. Petty doesn’t have a say in what will become of the team he once owned. It now rests in the hands of David Zucker, who is running the organization for Boston Ventures. Zucker hasn’t been able to find sponsorship for a full season for the No. 43 car or Petty’s second team that competed last season with several drivers behind the wheel including Richard’s son, Kyle.
Recently, Zucker has been in negotiations with Gillett Evernham Motorsports about merging the No. 43 with its threeteam operation. Such a merger would give GEM a four-car lineup with Kasey Kahne, Elliott Sadler and Reed Sorenson as its drivers and a driver having to be named for the vacant seat in the No. 43. All three of GEM’s teams are now in the top 35 in owner’s points for next season as Sorenson’s No. 10 team finished 37th in points in 2008 but moved up two spots after two teams (15, 01) were eliminated due to the Earnhardt-Ganassi merger.
Petty’s No. 43 car also has the luxury of being in the top 35 in owner’s points, which assures that team of a starting spot in the first five races of the next season, but it has yet to sign a sponsor for 2009. It is the lack of sponsorship dollars that now has brought former GEM driver Scott Riggs into the picture.
Riggs has a relationship with State Water Heaters and it could be that he could bring that sponsorship to the team if he is named driver. If that scenario doesn’t play out and the merger still goes through, A.J. Allmendinger seems to be the leading candidate to take over Petty’s famous ride.
Just as uncertain as who will end up in the No. 43 next season, is Labonte’s plan for next season. At the present time the only available full-time ride for next season is the Earnhardt- Ganassi’s No. 41 Target-sponsored ride. That operation is full of unanswered questions as it prepares for next season as it only has partial sponsorship for Juan Pablo Montoya’s team and has yet to announce anything for Aric Armirola’s No. 8 ride.
Labonte is a seasoned veteran with several good years left in him, but he may become another casualty of our country’s economic slide. Like many in the sport, he was probably correct in thinking that Boston Ventures could come into Petty Enterprises and infuse it with enough cash to turn the team’s fortunes around but any hope of that happening is now nothing more than a distant memory.
The days of Petty Enterprises seems to also be a distant memory. Many of the sport’s new fans weren’t around when Richard and his Petty blue No. 43 were dominating the sport, so to them it’s just a sign of the times. But if you have been a longtime fan of the sport as I have been, it’s not a sign of the times, it’s an end of an era that made the sport what it is today!