Sunday's Toyota/Save Mart 350 will mark the 25th anniversary of NASCAR Sprint Cup road course racing at Sonoma Raceway, with a crowd of nearly 100,000 people from around the state and nation on hand to cheer the biggest stars in stock cars.

But few people knew what to expect when NASCAR made its debut in Sonoma in 1989. How was a domestic beer sport rooted in oval racing in the South going to succeed on a road course amid the hills and vineyards of Northern California?

Over the last quarter-century, though, the annual Bay Area stop on the Cup circuit has grown into one of the largest single-day sporting events in the state. The list of winners reads like a who's who of NASCAR, and the facility -- formerly known as Sears Point and Infineon -- has become one of the most modern in the country.

Dale Earnhardt guides his Chevrolet around the Sears Point road course, with Rusty Wallace close behind, en route to a Winston Cup victory. [950508 SP 9E
Dale Earnhardt guides his Chevrolet around the Sears Point road course, with Rusty Wallace close behind, en route to a Winston Cup victory. [950508 SP 9E 2] SPORTS 5/8 SEARS POINT 8E Dale Earnhardt leads Rusty Wallace through turn three at the Sears Point Raceway on his way to winning the Save Mart Supermarkets 300 Sunday, May 7, 1995, near Sonoma, Calif. Earnhardt passed Mark Martin with two laps remaining in the 74 lap race to snag his 65th career win, the first road course victory in his career. (AP Photo/Sam Morris)

"I was just overwhelmed with how fun it was, how beautiful it was and how it was so different than anything I've ever experienced on the NASCAR circuit," said Rusty Wallace, a two-time winner in Sonoma and a 2013 inductee into the NASCAR Hall of Fame, about his earliest memories of the Sonoma area. "When I went out there, I almost didn't feel like I was going out there for a race. I almost felt like I was going on vacation."

Most drivers in the early years of Cup racing in Sonoma enjoyed the West Coast trip to break up the monotony of oval racing in the Deep South. But not all enjoyed, or were adept at, the actual road course racing part.

That meant only a handful of drivers had a realistic chance of winning the race in the early years of the event. Between 1989 and 1997, before Jeff Gordon began a streak of dominance that included five victories and two top-three finishes in nine years, drivers such as Wallace, Ricky Rudd, Ernie Irvan, Mark Martin and Geoffrey Bodine found themselves in Victory Lane or in a position to challenge for the win almost every year.

NASCAR driver Rusty Wallace raises his arms in victory after winning the Save Mart 300 auto race Sunday, May 5, 1996, at Sears Point Raceway in Sonoma,
NASCAR driver Rusty Wallace raises his arms in victory after winning the Save Mart 300 auto race Sunday, May 5, 1996, at Sears Point Raceway in Sonoma, Calif. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

Robin Pemberton, the NASCAR vice president for competition who was Martin's crew chief from 1988-91 and Wallace's from 1995-2001, said a few drivers took road racing seriously 25 years ago, but that others "just went there to log laps and hopefully finish the entire race."

The best drivers still provided moments of unforgettable racing.

In 1991, Rudd crossed the finish line first, but Davey Allison was declared the winner after Rudd was assessed a five-second penalty some 21/2 hours after the race concluded. Rudd had taken the lead from Allison after bumping him from behind at Turn 11 on Lap 73 of the 74-lap race. Allison spun but recovered to follow Rudd across the finish line, 4.5 seconds behind.

In 1992, Irvan was black-flagged at the start of the race for jumping the green flag and had to begin at the rear of the field. He went on to pass every single car and capture the first of his two Sonoma wins.

In 1995, Martin and Dale Earnhardt were locked in a duel for the lead. According to Earnhardt at the time, he thought he smelled oil on the track on the third-to-last lap in the carousel and knew to avoid that spot the next time around. He did, but Martin drove through the slippery patch and got loose, allowing Earnhardt to make the pass and go on to win the race.

The carousel, a wide, sweeping, downhill left-hand turn, was a driver's favorite for the passing opportunities it presented. But it was eliminated from the Cup race, according to raceway president and general manager Steve Page, mainly for the benefit of spectators.

With the introduction by the raceway of the chute, which bypassed turns 5 and 6, in 1998, the race went from 74 laps to 112, allowing fans to see the cars more often and for a longer period of time. The race is now 110 laps.

"I still hear about it from Rusty Wallace every time I see him," said Page, who wouldn't rule out bringing back the carousel for Cup races at some point.

"Man, I wish they would get back to that," Wallace said. "That carousel, that's where I made all of my passes at. I made more passes coming off of that doggone corner than anywhere on that racetrack."

In 1996, around the time NASCAR started its boom in popularity, Skip Berg sold the track to Speedway Motorsports, Inc. and chairman Bruton Smith, allowing the track to become a much more modern facility. According to Page, Smith has invested roughly $100 million in improvements around the facility.

"They've made a lot of safety improvements over the years, and the track is much better today," driver Greg Biffle said. "But some of the earliest memories of watching and myself racing there, that's always been a fun racetrack for me."

There's no bigger star in Sonoma than Gordon, a Vallejo native. His emergence as one of NASCAR's most dominant drivers in the mid-1990s fueled the event's growth and gave Bay Area fans someone local to root for every year.

Road course veterans such as Tony Stewart and Juan Pablo Montoya have won at Sonoma, but some unlikely drivers such as Kasey Kahne and Clint Bowyer have all driven their cars to victory.

So just like in 1989, few people know what to expect Sunday.

"There's a host of drivers that can win there, and it makes for great racing," Pemberton said. "The drivers really take it seriously and use it as an opportunity to excel at something that's quite different than what people generally think we do every weekend, which is just ovals."

Race facts

Where: Sonoma Raceway, Highways 37 and 121, Sonoma
TV: Friday, practice, 1 p.m., final practice, 3:30 p.m., Speed; Saturday, qualifying, 1 p.m., TNT; Sunday, race, noon, TNT.

Online extras

Year-by-year look at NASCAR races in Sonoma. www.mercurynews.com/sports