It hasn't been the fastest race to the checkered flag for Josef Newgarden, the rising star of IndyCar.

Newgarden, coming off a dominating win on the oval at Iowa Speedway last weekend, returns to the street course of Toronto this weekend as the defending race winner. It's a far cry from four seasons ago, when as a rookie he led only one lap all year while driving for a small, single-car team.

"About halfway through that year it got really difficult at certain points to have faith and motivation in what you were doing," Newgarden said Friday. "I just remember thinking, 'What is going on? I don't know what I'm doing, I don't know what we need from a big picture, whether that's a team thing or a car set up standpoint.' There was a lot going on. If you can imagine loving something so much, more than anything else in life and then losing your love for it — it's kind of an odd thing to happen. And then you regain it."

Newgarden believes things really began clicking two seasons later, in 2014, and have been steadily rolling upward since. He now drives for the two-car team at Ed Carpenter Racing and was in the championship hunt last season, when he won two races and finished seventh in the final standings.

"You learn the ups and downs," he said. "You learn the emotional roller coaster of racing."

Newgarden enters Sunday's race on the temporary street course as one of the favorites. His win last weekend at Iowa, where he led all but 18 of the 300 laps, helped him close the gap on IndyCar Series points leader Simon Pagenaud. He's climbed from 12th to second in the standings over the last five races and the Tennessee native trails Pagenaud by 73 points.

"I think that's racing," he said. "You have one weekend where you're like the biggest jerk on the planet and everyone hates you and then the next weekend you have an amazing weekend and you're like the messiah again."

He's already experiencing that at Toronto, where he was 16th on the speed chart after Friday's practice sessions. Pagenaud was fastest, while his Team Penske teammates Helio Castroneves and Will Power were second and third. The fourth Penske driver, Juan Pablo Montoya, was in a crash during practice.

Pagenaud had praise for the course.

"I like it because I find it more exciting," Pagenaud said. "You got to be so precise and it's narrow, it's technical in the last section but it also meets speed corners, it's high speed because it's so narrow. It's better for the fans because it looks more sketchy and will bring a better show."

Newgarden, meanwhile, is still driving with a wrap on his right hand from the break he suffered in a crash at Texas last month. He's been downgraded from a brace because it took up too much room in his car and he couldn't grip the wheel. Although he also broke his clavicle, Newgarden said his hand is the issue.

"The hand is really what's bothering me, it's going to be a problem," Newgarden said. "It's healing. I just went and got X-rays this week."

Newgarden's best finish on a street course this year was fourth at Detroit, and he struggled to a 22nd-place finish to start the season in St. Petersburg. He was 10th on Long Beach. Because of his struggles on street courses, he doesn't believe his victory last year makes him the driver to beat.

"I don't think we're going to walk away. (The) goal this weekend is to finish in (the) top six," Newgarden said. "If we can do that then we just need to have a clean race and then we'll fight for a podium or a win."