One might excuse Dr. Jerry Punch for having some residual hard feelings when it comes to Kurt Busch. Busch, now driving for Stewart-Haas Racing in the NASCAR Sprint Cup series, infamously launched a string of curses on the air during the last race of the 2011 season, when ESPN's Punch tried to interview him after his transmission broke early in the competition. The two made up at the start of the 2012 season, and now, with Busch going for an epic motorsports double this weekend, Punch considers himself a supporter of the effort.
"He slid down to a team where he had to drive for basically nothing, his stock dropped off the edge of the table, people questioned whether sponsors would want to hook up with him, whether he could control his emotions," Punch says of Busch, who lost his Penske Racing ride after the 2011 finale, and had to drive instead for a much-less-funded Phoenix Racing team in 2012.
Busch switched to the better-funded but still-underdog Furniture Row Racing in 2013, and Punch remained in his corner. "I told him nothing would make me happier than to see you take that car [and qualify for the 2013] Chase [for the Championship]. Those guys [at Furniture Row] didn't compare to the cubic dollars that the heavyweights have, so it was a David and Goliath thing, and Kurt really proved his mettle [by making the Chase]. The guy's incredible."
On Sunday Busch will make his Indianapolis 500 debut (May 25 at noon/ET, ABC), then hop on a plane to Charlotte, North Carolina, to resume his full time gig on the NASCAR circuit in the Coca-Cola 600 (5:30 p.m./ET, Fox). Just three men have ever attempted this 1,100-mile double, and Tony Stewart is the only one to complete the marathon. "This challenge [puts Busch] under a microscope, with incredible media attention, and he needs to really showcase his talent, his savvy, his invincibility," Punch says. "He joins a very elite group in trying to do that."
However things end up for Busch, NBC Sports will be presenting a 30-minute documentary on his effort, Kurt Busch: 36(Sunday, June 8 at 4:30/3:30c, NBC), with a 60-minute director's cut airing the following evening at 11/10c on NBCSN.