Bobby Labonte and Petty Enterprises have reached a mutual agreement to separate, the team confirmed on Thursday.
The 2000 Sprint Cup champion earlier this season signed a four-year extension with partial ownership to remain in the famed No. 43 car that Richard Petty drove to seven titles when Boston Ventures purchased majority interest in NASCAR’s most storied organization.
But with the car unsponsored — General Mills is moving to Richard Childress Racing in 2009 — and the future of the organization in doubt, he has opted to seek employment elsewhere.
A possible scenario for Labonte could be the new Earnhardt-Ganassi team that has an open spot in the No. 41 Target car. Sources said the organization has had informal discussions with Labonte and would be interested if he were available, although his car number may not be the 41.
Labonte, in a prepared statement, said only that he did not have a contract for 2009 and that he was ready to explore all options.
“In over 15 years of racing in the Sprint Cup Series, I can’t remember a time when the sport’s landscape looks as it does today,” he said. “Saying that, Petty Enterprises and I had serious and very sincere discussions about what was best for myself and everyone involved at Petty Enterprises moving forward.
“These discussions culminated with us agreeing that moving in a separate direction will be the greatest way to reach our end goals. It was by no means an easy decision. I am, and will always be, very appreciative of what Richard Petty and the Petty family, every employee of Petty Enterprises and members of Boston Ventures did to invest in bettering my career the past three seasons.”
The Pettys have been in negotiations with Gillett Evernham regarding a possible merger into a four-car team. Under that scenario, the No. 43 would become the fourth car with the No. 9 [Kasey Kahne], 19 [Elliott Sadler] and 10 [Reed Sorenson] of GEM.
“We can confirm Gillett Evernham Motorsports is in exclusive negotiations with Petty Holdings,” Tom Reddin, CEO of Gillett Evernham Motorsports, said. “GEM has a very solid foundation and this is an exciting opportunity to build on that foundation with one of the greatest names in the history of motorsports. We will work diligently over the next several weeks and make further comment at the appropriate time.”
Petty officials were not immediately available for comment, but it is obvious the team is in a state of flux. Approximately 65 employees have been released since the season ended. Thirty-nine were let go on Monday.
The organization joins a long list of teams struggling to survive the tough economic times. The Wood Brothers have released 22 employees and plan to compete in only 12 of 36 races next season.