In the beginning they hailed from the moonshine-soaked mountains of the Carolinas, the red-dirt back roads of Georgia and Alabama, the dark hollows of Tennessee and Kentucky. For them stock car racing provided an adventuresome escape from the tedium of the farms and factories and mills.

They were a drawling, brawling lot, rough-hewn and raw-knuckled, and what they might have lacked in formal education they made up for in natural-born gumption and primal savvy. "Country smarts" as it's called. Guts, not social graces, was what counted back then.

They were hard-driving and hell-raising, often tobacco-stained and liquor-breathed. They were uncouth and uncultured, with farmer tans and callused hands, country as cornbread and not ashamed to admit it.

They were NASCAR's original Good Ol' Boys. Today they are an endangered species.

"There ain't many of us left," allows Sterling Marlin, 47, the lone Tennessean in NASCAR's Nextel Cup Series. Marlin followed the tire tracks of his farmer/racer father Coo Coo-hickory-tough and battle-scarred-into NASCAR's top division. "Sometimes I look around and wonder, Where'd everybody go?" says Marlin. "It's sort of a shame, the way this sport has changed. I kinda miss them old days."

There hasn't been a top-division NASCAR driver from Alabama-home of the once famed and feared Alabama Gang-in years. And none in recent years have hailed from South Carolina, which once spawned such legends as David Pearson and Cale Yarborough.

There wasn't a Georgia driver at Atlanta Motor Speedway this spring for the first time since NASCAR started racing there in 1951. Bill Elliott, the pride of Dawsonville, missed the race as he fades into semi-retirement. Some of Elliott's fellow Georgians were among the first drivers to stamp their names in the NASCAR record books: Red Byron, Tim and Fonty Flock, Rex White, Jack Smith . .

"You'd never think that would ever happen," said Atlanta Motor Speedway President Ed Clark, reflecting on the empty roll call. "It's a really sad note."

North Carolina, the centralized base camp for a majority of today's NASCAR teams, is home to plenty of transplants but only one native son who is at or near the top, Dale Earnhardt Jr.

The ranks of Southern racers are wilting like Pickett's boys in butternut at Gettysburg, and in their place are troops of fresh-faced youngsters from California, Las Vegas, the Midwest, the Northwest, and the Northeast. Down in Dixie they are striking the colors. NASCAR is losing its drawl.

"What we're seeing is the nationalization of NASCAR," says H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler, president of Lowe's Motor Speedway and a keen observer of the sport for some five decades. "It's not unlike what happened in the National Hockey League, which began as primarily a Canadian sport and gradually spread throughout the U.S. In recent years the same thing has occurred in NASCAR; what began as mainly a rural, Southern sport involving mostly Southern boys eventually began to branch out. As its popularity has grown and spread, so has its pool of drivers throughout all the states.

"And it's not over yet. I predict that in the next decade we'll see a European invasion of NASCAR. This is rapidly becoming an international sport, and it's only a matter or time before it starts attracting international drivers."

Consider the top-ranked drivers of yesteryear: Richard Petty (North Carolina), David Pearson (South Carolina), Bobby Allison (Florida-bred and Alabama-baptized), Darrell Waltrip (Kentucky, by way of Tennessee), Cale Yarborough (South Carolina), Dale Earnhardt (North Carolina), Lee Petty (North Carolina), Bill Elliott (Georgia) Ricky Rudd (Virginia), Ned Jarrett (North Carolina), Junior Johnson (North Carolina) . . . and the list goes on and on.

Compare that with the home states of many of the current top racers: Matt Kenseth (Wisconsin), Ryan Newman (Indiana), Kurt Busch (Nevada), Tony Stewart (Indiana), Jeff Gordon (California), Jimmie Johnson (California), Kevin Harvick (California), Kasey Kahne (Washington), Robby Gordon (California), Jamie McMurray (Missouri). At one point this season, Earnhardt Jr. and Elliott Sadler (Virginia) were the only Southerners ranked among Nextel Cup's Top 10.

More migrants are on the way, matriculating in the Busch Series, such as future Nextel Cup stars like Martin Truex Jr. (New Jersey) and Kyle Busch (Nevada).