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Apr 23, 7:16 PM EDT

Newgarden returns to 'home' track, site of 1st IndyCar win

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BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) -- Josef Newgarden is carrying an unfamiliar mantle into Barber Motorsports Park: defending champion.

He'll try to defend an IndyCar title for the first time Sunday in the Indy Grand Prix of Alabama. Besides perhaps an extra public appearance or two, the primary difference might be higher expectations from fans.

"I think the biggest thing is people expect you to be really good when you come back," Newgarden said. "If you won somewhere, they're like, 'Wow, you're going to go back and have a really easy time, right, because you guys were good last year?' That's not always the case. Things change year to year."

He will start in third Sunday after a strong qualifying turn.

The Barber win was his first in IndyCar. He'll try to repeat on the 2.3-mile, 17-turn road course he's been racing on since he was a teenager in Formula Junior cars. It's only a few hours from his hometown outside of Nashville, Tennessee, after all.

Newgarden took three different turns up front last year, leading 46 of the 90 laps and holding off a charge from Graham Rahal at the end.

He has regrouped from a rough start to this season when electrical problems - "gremlins" as he called them - took him out 47 laps into the race at St. Petersburg, Florida. Since then he has two Top 10 finishes, though even a sixth-place standing at Phoenix was a disappointment to him.

"I think we had a winning car to compete there, and it would have been nice to race Scott (Dixon) and some of the other guys at the end," Newgarden said. "And then Long Beach just was slightly underwhelming, we were in the top 10 all weekend but couldn't really climb to the top five like we needed to.

"I think we could have finished higher than 10th at the end of the day. It just was what it was. We were a little underperforming there."

Newgarden, who also won at Toronto last year, finished a career-best seventh in the series point standings and has finished higher each year since debuting in 2012.

Now, he's back at the place regarded as the closest thing he has to a home track on the series. He's OK with that perception.

"It's close to home," Newgarden said. "It's one of my favorites, the place where I got my first win. It's going to be a very special track, I think, for me forever."

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