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.

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.”

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.”

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.

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.