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Simon Pagenaud wraps up IndyCar's top rookie award

Simon Pagenaud spent his Sunday afternoon in wine country barely avoiding spun-out cars. When he finally crossed the finish line, he got an award for his dexterity.

Pagenaud formally clinched IndyCar's rookie of the year award Sunday with his seventh-place finish, easily outdistancing the rest of the first-year drivers.

"That's pretty cool," Pagenaud said. "It was one of our goals for the year, so we can check that box. (And) we are now fifth in the championship, so we are very proud of those accomplishments."

The French driver did it despite incurring damage on his front wing early in the race, praising his pit crew for changing the nose "lightning-quick."

"I was hoping to get a top-four position, but we got boxed in ... on the last restart," Pagenaud said. "Those things happen."

James Hinchcliffe edged out J.R. Hildebrand for the rookie award last year. Hinchcliffe completed only 35 laps before mechanical problems shelved him.

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SPEEDY SWIMMER: When Tyler Clary's swimming career is finished, the Olympic gold medalist wants to go even faster.

The 200-meter backstroke champion in London spent a busy weekend at the Sonoma track, soaking up information and atmosphere in hopes of starting an eventual second career as a race car driver.

"To be here, talking to team owners and drivers, it's a huge privilege and an honor," Clary said. "And it's even cooler to see some of the drivers look at me the same way I look at them."

Clary made a few trips around the road course in various vehicles, including a ride Sunday that tantalized him.

"That's the first thing I said when I got out of the car: 'I could definitely make this a lifestyle,'" Clary said Sunday, grinning.

Clary was joined in Sonoma by fellow gold medalists Dana Vollmer and Erin Cafaro, two former University of California athletes. Vollmer set a world record in the 100-meter butterfly in London, and Cafaro — who got a ride with Mario Andretti that left her "a little spinny" — won her second straight gold in the women's eight rowing team.

Clary grew up in Southern California with a fascination for motor sports alongside his passion for the pool. His elementary-school swim team had a merchandise booth during NASCAR weekends at the Fontana track near his native Riverside, Calif., and he spent countless weekends out in the California desert "trying to race something."

Clary, who made waves before the Olympics for his criticism of Michael Phelps' work ethic, realizes it's a bit presumptuous of him to assume he can swiftly do what drivers spend their lives figuring out, but he thinks it isn't impossible to extend athletic talent into multiple arenas.

"At the pinnacles of performance, it's overly mental," Clary said. "If you have the right mindset and the right drive to do something ... you can kind of carry that over to other sports. One thing people don't realize is how in shape you have to be to drive these cars and endure the heat for hours on end, and I think I'm in shape to do that, and I think I have the right mental state. It's just going to come down to refining those skills.

"Can I do that? I don't know. Am I going to take a great shot at it? Absolutely."

Clary cited Formula One's Sebastian Vettel among his favorite drivers, but didn't want to pick a race winner. He was impressed by meeting J.R. Hildebrand, who immediately gave Clary his cell phone number in case he ever had questions or needed help.

"That meant a lot to me, that it wasn't just another hand he was shaking," Clary said. "He was genuinely interested in what was going on and wanted to help me."

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THE BOSS: Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson served the grand marshal of the Sonoma race, and the former NBA star enjoyed his first prolonged exposure to motor sports at the track roughly 60 miles from his hometown.

"There's a lot of commonality — great athletes in both arenas," Johnson said. "This is a really cool sport."

Johnson got a ride on the track a few months ago, "and I will tell you, my food did come up. I wasn't prepared for those turns. The upper loop was tough on a former basketball player."

Johnson can't appear anywhere in public without hearing questions about the Sacramento Kings' future, and he didn't blink at a report the Kings are now thinking about moving to Virginia Beach after their prolonged flirtation with Anaheim.

"We're not giving up," Johnson said. "I don't think Virginia Beach would be a better place. I don't think the grass is greener in Virginia Beach than in Sacramento."

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NINER PRIDE: From his firesuit to his paint job, J.R. Hildebrand's afternoon in Sonoma was all about his devotion to the San Francisco 49ers and their coach.

Hildebrand's car was painted in the Niners' garnet and gold, and his firesuit was an interesting interpretation of their uniform: tan pants, a red jersey with a No. 4 on the back below his name in the Niners' traditional font — and even the jersey stripes on the shoulders.

Hildebrand is from nearby Sausalito, just across the Golden Gate Bridge from the City, but his Panther Racing team also is part-owned by Jim Harbaugh. The team gear certainly didn't hurt Hildebrand: He finished eighth.

Harbaugh couldn't attend the race, however. The Niners were busy beating the Broncos in a preseason game in Denver.

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PIT STOPS: Helio Castroneves attended a pre-race Q-and-A session carrying a sign reading: "Vote for Me." Castroneves will start a run on "Dancing With the Stars: All-Stars" after the IndyCar season ends next month. He first appeared on the show in 2007. ... Will Power's second-place finish was his seventh top-five finish of the season. ... Dario Franchitti has finished in the top four in his last six starts in Sonoma. ... Ryan Briscoe is the seventh different winner in the eight editions of the Sonoma race since the series first visited wine country in 2005. Power is the only repeat winner.