Bobby Labonte has been released from all contractual obligations to Petty Enterprises, the 2000 NASCAR Sprint Cup champion announced Thursday.

In parting with Petty, Labonte is now free to pursue other opportunities, including the open seat in the #41 Dodge at Ganassi Racing, where he is most often mentioned as the leading candidate to replace Reed Sorenson.

"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," Labonte said in a statement released Thursday. "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 separate directions 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.

"Moving forward, I'm very anxious to prepare for the 2009 season. I do not currently have a contract with any other team for 2009, but I am ready to explore all opportunities and form the next partnership in my career. I'll continue to keep these matters private and will make the appropriate announcement and comments when my future plans are confirmed. I appreciate everyone's continued support."

In three years in the #43 Petty Enterprises Dodge, Labonte has no wins and three top-five finishes, all in 2006. Overall, he has posted 21 Cup victories, the last coming with Joe Gibbs Racing in 2003.

Over the past two weeks, reports of merger talks between Gillett Evernham Motorsports and Petty Enterprises have persisted. Labonte's departure paves the way for a possible scenario that would put Sorenson, who has signed with GEM, in the #43 car (assuming a number change from the #10 that GEM currently runs), should the two organisations combine forces.

by Reid Soencer/Sporting News

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