Sources: Petty Enterprises, GEM remain in merger talks

NEW YORK -- Petty Enterprises remains in discussions with Gillett Evernham Motorsports to merge into a four-car operation, sources told ESPN.com on Thursday.

A report by SI.com that the merger would happen and that Petty Enterprises would not return in 2009, according to multiple sources, is premature.

Drew Brown, the director of communications at GEM, said the status of the company has not changed and there are no impending announcements. Officials at the office of GEM majority owner George Gillett were surprised by the report.

"We're just not going to comment on speculation," Brown said.

Petty officials have said for months that they were in merger discussions with multiple organizations, including GEM. Two of those, Dale Earnhardt Inc. and Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates, were scratched off the list when they merged last month.

Should such a merger happen it would shrink the garage by another car, the No. 45 driven by Kyle Petty, Chad McCumbee and Terry Labonte last season. The No. 43 of Bobby Labonte would combine with GEM's No. 9 of Kasey Kahne, No. 19 of Elliott Sadler and No. 10 of Reed Sorenson.

A merger could also mean the end of NASCAR's most storied organization as it has been known since 1969.

Owner and seven-time champion Richard Petty sold majority interest in Petty Enterprises earlier this year to Boston Ventures but maintained the Petty name. It is unclear if a potential merger with GEM would incorporate both parties or if the Petty Driving Experience would be included.

News of the SI.com report spread rapidly through the Manhattan banquet room that hosted a Thursday awards luncheon featuring the top 12 drivers from this past season.

"I've heard it a couple of different ways ... merged, bought out," driver Jeff Burton said. "The first reports I got were very negative about the way it was going down. I got the impression in the first place Richard wasn't very involved in the acquisition.

"I hope that GEM has the wisdom to include Richard and [son] Kyle in what they're doing. That family is the iconic family. You have a hard time showing me a family that has done more for this sport than that family," Burton said.

Four-time champion Jeff Gordon said the potential of that merger makes him nervous because it's another sign of how the down economy is changing the face of the sport.

"It's extremely disappointing to hear that's happening to Petty," he said. "Who doesn't want to have this sport without the Petty name in it. I hope they find a way to keep that. It's important to our sport.

"It's also a wake-up call to all of us that none of us are immune to what can potentially happen," he said.

GEM has already benefited from the merger of DEI and Ganassi, which will run under General Motors -- Ganassi was a Dodge team -- and use engines prepared by Earnhardt-Childress Racing.

The No. 10 car that was 37th in points will move into the top 35 guaranteed a spot in the field because the two DEI cars lost in the merger have been eliminated from the top 35.

The No. 47 car that will be driven by Marcos Ambrose for JTG-Daugherty moved from No. 36 to No. 35.

"Everybody will just shift up," NASCAR spokesman Kerry Tharp said. "We will use the top 35 at the track."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.