Has it really reached the point there's no spot for The King in NASCAR?

Richard Petty celebrated his 50th year in NASCAR in 2008. Was it his last as anything other than a figurehead? AP Photo/Terry Renna

NASCAR's most storied race team could be nearing the end of the line.

If Thursday's reports are true, Petty Enterprises might cease to exist in the way NASCAR fans have known it for more than half a century.

The Petty organization is involved in merger talks with Gillett Evernham Motorsports. If it happens, calling the transaction a merger is a generous gesture to a cherished and historic team.

GEM would add the legendary No. 43 Dodge to its operation as a fourth car with former Sprint Cup champion Bobby Labonte. So in reality, GEM would absorb what's left of Petty Enterprises.

Whatever happens, the Petty name likely will remain in some fashion. Maybe GEM/Petty Motorsports or possibly Gillett-Petty Racing, given that Ray Evernham is getting out of the team ownership business. But we all know what's actually happening here.

For the longtime NASCAR fan, this is as sad as it gets. Imagine the Green Bay Packers merging with the Jacksonville Jaguars or the Boston Celtics merging with the Miami Heat.

You get the idea, but there's one big difference. The Packers and the Celtics remain successful teams with a profitable business model. Petty Enterprises hasn't been successful for a long time.

If Richard Petty and Boston Ventures (the team's controlling investment group) make this move, many will say it's another business necessity in the difficult economic times. Clearly, that's a factor, but blaming the economy is misleading.

Petty Enterprises was in trouble long before the economic downturn started. The team hasn't been seriously competitive for two decades. It hasn't won a race in nine years and hasn't won more than one race in a season in 25 years.

The 10th and final championship for the team was 30 years ago when King Richard won his seventh Cup crown. His father, Lee Petty, won three championships in the 1950s. This was NASCAR's dominant team for 25 years, the New York Yankees of stock car racing.

But the Pettys didn't keep up with the times. The multicar era, in a much more advanced technological sport, passed them by.

While team owners such as Rick Hendrick and Jack Roush were building state-of-the-art operations in enormous new buildings with hundreds of employees, the Pettys kept their shop right next door to the house where Richard was born in rural Level Cross, N.C. It was the quaint mom-and-pop store going up against Wal-Mart.

For years, even without a competitive team, Petty Enterprises managed to stay in the game, capitalizing on Richard's iconic name. Sponsors kept paying the bills because Richard was, and is, a living legend.

But even The King has his limits. A great name isn't enough when corporations are asked to pay more than $20 million a year to sponsor a team. At some point, you have to show results.

The Pettys made a concerted effort to improve things the past couple of years. Last year, Richard made the difficult decision to move the operation from Level Cross to Mooresville, N.C., in suburban Charlotte, the area where most NASCAR teams are located.

The idea was to help the organization recruit more and better mechanics, fabricators, engine builders, etc., because most of those people weren't willing to move to Level Cross.

In 2005, the Pettys hired Robbie Loomis to run the operation, bringing one of the most talented men in the sport back to Petty Enterprises after he led Jeff Gordon to his fourth Cup title at Hendrick Motorsports.

And Richard hired Labonte to take over in the No. 43 Dodge in 2006. But Labonte was about to turn 42, six years removed from his championship season at Joe Gibbs Racing. Labonte still can drive a race car, but he can't work miracles.

All the changes were too little, too late. Another sign of the troubles came earlier this year when the Pettys sold controlling interest to Boston Ventures. NASCAR's shining example of a family operation was handing the keys to investment bankers.

Things even became difficult within the family. Kyle Petty, who had raced for his father's team for the past 12 seasons, was told his full-time days as a driver would end after 2008, a decision Kyle didn't appreciate.

Kyle hopes to race full time in the Grand-Am sports car series next year, and he probably is taking the Wells Fargo sponsorship with him.

Petty Enterprises still hoped to run a two-car team in 2009, but it didn't have full-time sponsorship for either car. The economy cratered, and the chances of bringing in major corporate dollars became bleak.

Now, the future rests in the hands of Boston Ventures CEO David Zucker, who had no comment Thursday on the speculation.

Three weeks ago in Miami, Richard Petty said any merger would be a last-resort move.

"Mergers in our business right now are an emergency situation," he said. "In other words, if you're drowning, then you're going to get a partner to drown with you. That's basically what it looks like it's going to be, but maybe if they go together, maybe they don't drown."

Petty Enterprises is drowning, and Richard doesn't get to say who throws the life preserver. The hero in the feathered cowboy hat and dark sunglasses has to answer to the corporate suits and the bottom line.

That might be the saddest part of all.

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. He can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.