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CUP: Road Back Will Be Challenging For Petty

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“How many NASCAR teams have been around for 60 years? The Petty organization is the winningest race organization in all of NASCAR. It is a great house, foundation, good values, and good people. The right kind of phantom partner, which I think Boston Ventures is, can help make the house stronger, and that’s what we’re going to try to do.” — former Petty Enterprises CEO David Zucker, June 2008

“We plan to keep the Petty name in the forefront of NASCAR. We ask that all of the King's fans join with us. Our goal is to get the cowboy hat and sunglasses back in victory lane.” — George Gillett, former Richard Petty Motorsports owner, Jan. 2009

“I’d appreciate it if we could talk about a new day for Richard Petty Motorsports and a new opportunity because we’re ready to go. This is a huge investment from our family. If we wanted to leave the sport, we had all the opportunity to walk away.” — Foster Gillett, son of George Gillett, Jan. 2010

The saga of Richard Petty has taken more plot turns in the last three years than a Faulkner novel. But the big question is: Where does it go from here? Because the last few years have been nothing if not dramatic.

A brief recap:

Lee Petty, Richard’s father, formed Petty Enterprises in Level Cross, N.C., in 1948. The team competed in the first NASCAR Strictly Stock race in 1949, and went on to win a record 268 races in what is now known as the Sprint Cup Series. But the team’s last victory came in 1999, when John Andretti won at Martinsville Speedway.

Prior to the start of the 2008 season, Petty moved the team from Level Cross, near Greensboro, down to Mooresville in the Charlotte area. The team leased the old Robert Yates Racing facility in an attempt to be closer to the epicenter of NASCAR activity.

In June 2008, Petty sold controlling interest of Petty Enterprises to Boston Ventures for a reported $60 million. As part of the deal, PE signed 2000 NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Bobby Labonte to a multi-year contract extension and installed former Playboy executive David Zucker as CEO. At the time, Boston Ventures pledged to pump millions of dollars into Petty Enterprises to restore it to its past glories.

“We're going to be investing in building the race team in terms of adding personnel and building up a test-team operation and increasing investment in some of our programs like the chassis development program,” Zucker told NASCAR.com in a June 2008 interview. “ ... We have a long-term commitment to be successful, and we've already started digging in.”

But with no sponsors for 2009, PE released Labonte in November 2008 and closed for good as of Jan. 1, 2009.

On Jan. 8, 2009, Gillett Evernham Motorsports announced it had “merged” with Petty Enterprises and would be known as Richard Petty Motorsports. But there was no real merger, since PE had already closed and let go all of its employees. RPM hired Richard Petty as the team’s front man, gave him a minority ownership stake believed to be 4 percent and installed him as the team’s front man. He had no authority or responsibility in managing the team, largely serving as a figurehead and someone to court sponsors.

Petty brought with him Robbie Loomis and a handful of competition personnel from PE, but all the cars were run out of Gillett’s shops in Statesville, N.C., and Gillett still controlled the team.

At the end of 2009, RPM announced that it would switch from Dodge to Ford and move from Statesville to Concord, N.C., where it would use cars and engines built by Roush Fenway Racing and its affiliates. RPM closed its own engine and fabrication operations in Statesville, with more than 100 people losing their jobs.

During the 2010 season, RPM majority owner George Gillett defaulted on $90 million in bank loans he used to purchase the team from founder Ray Evernham. Gillett also ran up more than $10 million in debts to various vendors, including the Roush companies, which went as far as briefly repossessing his race cars.

Prior to the Martinsville race, team members were told that it was uncertain whether or not RPM would even finish the season. The team managed to complete the year, but on Nov. 22 instituted a huge round of layoffs, which sources said resulted in about 70 percent of the team members losing their jobs.

Finally, on Monday it was announced that a new ownership group comprised of Richard Petty, Medallion Financial Corp. and DGB Investments had purchased the team’s assets from Gillett. Terms of the deal were not disclosed, but when Petty was trying to shop the team last month, he reportedly was told by the bank that they would settle Gillett’s obligations for just $15 million.

Much as Boston Ventures did with PE in 2008, the financiers from Medallion and DGB will install new management into the race team and ultimately will have control over the decision-making at the team.

RPM will downsize from four cars in 2010 to just two next season, the No. 43 for AJ Allmendinger and the No. 9 for new teammate Marcos Ambrose.

The biggest short-term challenge will be to find sponsorship, the same problem that torpedoed Boston Ventures two years ago. With Best Buy leaving the team next year, RPM is aggressively looking for additional sponsorship next season.

Will the latest twist and turn in the Richard Petty story result in the team returning to its past glory? For better or worse, it’s way too early to tell. The move to Mooresville in 2008 didn’t save Petty Enterprises, nor did Boston Ventures. And in just three years George Gillett systematically destroyed the team Ray Evernham built from scratch in 2000.

Other investors in NASCAR have had mixed results. When Hall of Fame Racing was bought out by sports entrepreneurs Jeff Moorad and Tom Garfinkel, it lasted only one season as a stand-alone race team. Once again, the culprit was sponsorship.

On the other hand, there’s little question that investment banker Rob Kauffman saved Michael Waltrip Racing from going under after Waltrip put in everything he owned and could borrow to launch his team at the start of 2007.

By the same token, Chartwell Investments has quietly proven to be a powerful ally and partner for Richard Childress Racing and sports entrepreneur John Henry has helped keep Roush Fenway Racing competitive in recent years.

So how the latest chapter in the Petty saga plays out, only time will tell. But for now at least, the man known to millions of race fans simply as “The King,” is still in the game, and that’s a very good thing indeed.

Tom Jensen is the Editor in Chief of SPEED.com, Senior NASCAR Editor at RACER and a contributing Editor for TruckSeries.com. You can follow him online at twitter.com/tomjensen100 and e-mail him at Jensen is the author of “Cheating: The Bad Things Good NASCAR Nextel Cup Racers Do In Pursuit of Speed,” and has appeared on numerous television and radio shows. Jensen is the past President of the National Motorsports Press Association and an NMPA Writer of the Year.